Sharon Jaeschke knows that the more students are exposed to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the more likely they are to pursue a STEM-related career. This can be a challenge in rural communities where there are fewer major industries represented. 

But if Jaeschke, a math teacher and robotics coach at Southeast Valley High School, has anything to say about it, rural students will not only be exposed to STEM, but they’ll get to participate in it. 

Her work in this area earned her recognition in 2019 as a recipient of the I.O.W.A. STEM Teacher Award. In just a couple of years, she took the school from having no robotics team to competing at the state level. But though she worked to create and coordinate the school’s team, she says it is the students who get the credit for the success they’ve had so far. 

“When we put a banner up in our lobby, it’s going to be their banner,” Jaeschke said. 

While she had been teaching math for almost three decades, she had no experience with robotics. With support from the school administration, she volunteered time to start a team and coach the students. 

“I didn’t know anything in 2017, but I knew we needed a robotics team. I knew that because of my experience engaging with students.” 

Students on the 18-member robotics team learn about programming, fabrication, 3D printing, web design and more. They also learn soft skills like teamwork and communication. Both the administration and the community have been supportive of the team, helping to provide sponsorship. 

Helping students succeed

In the classroom, Jaeschke wants to give every student an entry point into their math education. The importance of this, she said, is keeping students engaged. Students who find math too challenging or too easy can both become uninterested if an education approach is not individually crafted for them. 

“Find out what they know – not what they’re supposed to know – to get started,” Jaeschke said.

This technique has already proved successful in raising test scores. In the next semester or so, she’ll have enough data to see if the approach means students stay in math longer (the students are not required to take math their senior year). 

Jaeschke encourages Iowans to stay open to new ideas in education. 

“Sometimes adults have this mindset of ‘it was good enough for me’ about the education system in Iowa,” she said. “The world is changing. We have to keep looking for new ideas. … We need to give a voice to those in the classroom.” 

The following is an excerpt from Jaeschke, in her own words.

My overall goal in teaching is to help my students develop into confident, capable and caring people.

To do this, I work to give them powerful “tools.” These tools can be developed when students experience lessons that are well-planned, memorable and meaningful every day of the school year. Doing this is so much more difficult and time-consuming than can be described here, and that effort makes teaching one of the most rewarding careers and a true calling.

Students can also develop these tools when respect in the classroom is the norm. For example, no name-calling, put-downs or profanity is ever allowed by me or any of my students in my classroom. Meaningful discussion often goes beyond the math curriculum, but we all accept that there will be times in which we agree to disagree. I remind students that I will have my beliefs and opinions backed up by experiences and facts, and they should also keep that as their standard. As a statistics instructor, this works into my curriculum really well.

One of the most important tools a high school student can develop is the mindset that effort in classes matters more than a high grade-point average. This does not mean we should stop giving grades, and, regardless of grades, students should always learn as much as possible. Grades allow us to measure how much of the material students have learned, which is important. What we need to stop doing is using grade-point averages to determine scholarships and stop rewarding class rank in any way. 

To elaborate on this, I believe all students need high levels of stamina and endurance to prevail in the pursuit of their goals. These traits can only be built in academic courses and activities that challenge them. I give students opportunities to work at high academic levels for long periods of time in my classes because that’s what will empower them to prevail when they pursue STEM careers. So many students are fooled into thinking that their high school grade point will determine their success after high school. 

Tragically, many students don’t take math classes during their senior year because they feel the need to protect their grade point. They sacrifice future opportunities when they worry too much about their grade-point average. Let’s allow all students to take challenging STEM courses in high school and stop talking about the top ten class rank, or financial aid based solely on whether you are the valedictorian of the class. This change would help many students consider and become more equipped to enter STEM careers. The future of STEM relies upon how many students have the skills and confidence to consider STEM fields. If we convince students they are not capable of high-level STEM careers, they will not pursue them.

Lastly, empathy is the secret ingredient of my teaching. After I challenge students, I communicate that I know things will not always turn out the way they want. Some goals are not met; some grades are not A’s even with their best efforts. When my students are frustrated, I either express pride in their effort or question whether they are giving the needed effort. This self-analysis will give them more long-term reward than an A grade ever will. I talk to them and email them so they can also read how much I care about them and their future. Students need a barrage of positive messages. I assure them that they are gaining from everything that happens to them (successes and failures) so that in the future they are more prepared. The only caution I give is not to blame others for what happens to them. Blamers are my own most frustrating type of student — it is hard to break that habit. 

When students ask me why I care, I relate stories of my past. I had many unfortunate events happen to me as I was growing up, and I was blessed with people around me who cared. I know now that there was a reason those things happened to me — those difficult times gave others the opportunities to help me and that help made me stronger. I look at my teaching career as my chance to pay that forward.