The Indiana Department of Education announced Tuesday, October 26th that Sharita Ware is Indiana’s Teacher of the Year! Ware teaches engineering and technology at East Tipp Middle School in Lafayette, IN. We want to encourage the recognition of teachers like Sharita Ware for all they do as educators of our youth. Mrs. Ware sets the example for all the amazing teachers in Indiana and across the U.S.
We had the privilege of sitting down with her to talk about her experiences as a STEM teacher and what she does in the class to leave lasting experiences with her students. Her responses are summarized in this interview.
You have gotten a lot of well-deserved attention and recognition recently. Can you tell me how that has been and how you are processing being named the Indiana Teacher of the Year?
Well it has been quite a crazy change. I took an entire day to map out my schedule, sort my emails into categories; congratulation emails, requests for meetings or interviews, or emails from the Department of Education, and prepared a planner for all of the new events added to my calendar. I can definitely see how people lose their footing in situations like this. The media and the community paint a picture of you like there’s something special about you that other people can’t attain, and that’s simply not true. If you aren’t sure about who you are then you can get lost in all of the hype. I try getting other people’s perspectives about what I’m doing, being intentional about staying grounded and remembering where I have come from … There are definitely people that would remind me if I needed it, ha ha. And even with all that has already happened, this is still just the calm before the wild ride. The eventful, wonderful, wild ride, I hope.
I want to use my recognition as an opportunity to point out some issues with STEM education so we can try to solve them. One big thing I notice is that there are lots of spaces for STEM being created but not being used. These teachers already have a lot on their plate, and are being asked to do more without any extra help. Maybe we can come up with better implementation plans and more help for these teachers.
As much as I love technology and STEM and the emphasis put on it, we need ensure our kids are learning the basics like reading and writing*. We also need to teach perseverance. I will tell my students, “Stop watching those 5-minute YouTube videos as examples of successes. You don’t know how long they practiced before they got there; how long they spent time editing; the preparation; etc.”
*Side note: A lot of our curriculum has connections to literature before diving into the engineering part of the lesson. Ask for a sample!
Being an engineering and technology teacher, what kind of STEM equipment and technology do you have access to and how do you apply it to teach STEM skills?
I have written grants to get robots, 3D printers, Cricut machines. I am open to using my 3D printers on lots of different projects. I try to get more students to use the 3D printers with optional activities. I really enjoy the racecars we are making this semester. Before we get into designing the racecars, the students learn how to sketch. We create engineering design sketches and turn 3D models to 2D drawings, then reverse that process. After that, we progress to computer-aided design. These topics are hard for the kids but it is great to see their pride and joy from those students who push through and accomplish a feat they thought was impossible.
There are also a few instances where we have organizations come in or a class from Purdue University come in to show us new technologies we don’t have at our school. It is great to collaborate in order to diversify teaching and excite students.
What are some of your favorite (or your students’ favorite) STEM classroom activities you have done or plan on doing?
Without hesitation, the prosthetic leg project is one of my favorites. At first I had students build full-size prosthetic legs, and then I started doing it on a smaller scale with dolls. The first few dolls were donated by my daughter, though she was not aware I was going to amputate their legs. Many of my students like to donate their no longer loved dolls for the project so now each group has their own doll. Some of the groups create an entire backstory for their doll.
The criteria of the project is for the doll’s prosthetic to have a working knee and extra credit for a working ankle. The leg has to be able to lock, and support the doll with light pressure applied without breaking. This project is done at the beginning of the year, before even learning about the engineering design process. We revisit what the students could’ve done differently after learning about the engineering design process.
You are very clearly great at what you do and also willing to share your successes. What advice would you give to a brand new STEM teacher or an experienced teacher who just started teaching STEM?
The biggest thing is not STEM related at all … it is to get to know your students first. Give them even the slightest bit of your time to show that you care about them. When they feel like you care about what’s going on in their world they will at least try what you ask of them.
A time that stands out to me is when I saw a girl who was on the verge of tears while trying to work through a project. I sent her an email right away letting her know that this project was not meant to make her upset, and that if she needed help with it, I would help the next day during class. The student responded “ok,” I helped her the next day, and thought nothing of it. Several weeks later, her older sister sent an email thanking me for reassuring her sister. It meant a lot to both of them. Those extra things you might not think you have time for end up helping your students a great deal.
We like to provide equal opportunities for schools, teachers, and students to get the best STEM resources they can. Are there any challenges or barriers you experienced on your way to becoming a successful STEM teacher? Is there anything a company like STEM Education Works or people in the community can do to remove these barriers?
A bothersome problem is logistics and time constraints that delay actually receiving technology, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Besides that, the resources are abundant, but the questions that don’t get asked to individual teachers are, “What can I do to help? How can I support what you’re already doing?” When people make decisions about which STEM classes and criteria need to be taught, agendas of their own are created and burdened on the teacher. Some of the time, these agendas are going in the opposite direction of where the teacher is going. Instead of saying, “This is a great new technology, here it is, do this in your classroom,” try asking “How can we make what you’re already doing better or easier?”
At STEM Education Works we want to thank Sharita Ware for taking the time out of her busy schedule for this interview. If you would like to connect with her, you can on LinkedIn, or visit East Tipp Middle School in Lafayette, Indiana!