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‘Driving Change’ panel: Roehrig built cultural bridges between reservation students and STEM studies

Augsburg College history professor Bill Green comments on aspects of leadership presented in “Pulling STEM out of compartments and into students’ everyday lives.”

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of the examples of leadership profiled in our series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today Augsburg College history professor Bill Green comments on aspects of leadership presented in Pulling STEM out of compartments and into students everyday lives.

Dr. Bill Green
Dr. Bill Green

Professor Gillian Roehrig’s approach to science education for kids on Minnesota’s Indian reservations reminded Bill Green of a teacher who impressed him long ago. And Green has had plenty of opportunity to observe teachers as the former Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, now a history professor at Augsburg College.

Green’s son was in a Minneapolis elementary school, attended mostly by students of color. The teacher he remembers was white, and very suburban. Here’s how she crossed the cultural divide: She invited groups of her students to attend basketball games at the suburban high school where her husband was the coach. The kids got to sit on the bench with the players, eat hot dogs and otherwise enjoy a royal treatment.

What impressed Green is that the teacher picked up her small guests at their inner-city homes. She went inside to meet the parents and to touch each family on its own turf.

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“It was astounding,” Green said. “It was something that the institution of public education hasn’t been very effective in amplifying and supporting — helping to bridge the gulf between the classroom and the neighborhood.”

In the same way, Roehrig helped construct cultural bridges between students and the studies of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Green said. She did that with all students in a bid to engage them in subjects that can seem daunting even to the best-prepared kids. In particular, she did it with Native American students, going to their reservations, learning about their culture and incorporating it into the science lessons.

“Working with tribal leaders, she kind of did a cultural immersion of the world from which her kids were coming,” Green said. “She made a conscious decision to validate that world, to find in that world the soul of the subject matter that she wanted to cover.”

‘Come on. I’ve got you!’

Leadership in STEM education embodies the challenge schools face today, especially as they strive to close the achievement gap between affluent white students and poor minorities.

“We are talking about giving kids an exposure to a certain type of discipline, a certain kind of thinking process in a way that expands their world,” Green said.

But science can represent a whole new and unfamiliar world for many kids.

“Typically kids of poverty and of color have not been a part of a population that’s been exposed to this kind of stuff,” Green said. “They have been kind of written off.”

Science can represent a whole new and unfamiliar world for many kids.
Courtesy of STEM Education Center, U of M
Science can represent a whole new and unfamiliar world for many kids.

Roehrig’s approach, with its assumption that every kid can be led to learn if offered a path grounded in familiar culture, is “very much in keeping with how we need to be thinking about not only closing the (education) gap but also long-term integration and revitalizing another generation,” Green said.

“I was really excited about all of the things Gillian did right,” Green said. “At the end of the day, it’s not just about the curriculum. That’s important. But it’s about the instruction, that human person who serves as the mentor, the person who is the physical incarnation of hope and challenge, a person who can stick out her hand and say, ‘Come on. I’ve got you!’ “

That kind of teacher can be a powerful force in a child’s life. Sadly, not every child gets such a helping hand in school.

“We have a lot of well meaning and effective teachers, but one of the things that really struck me about Gillian was that she was willing to get out of a power dynamic,” he said. “I was really touched by her openness to listening and setting aside the traditional professional bent where you come in as a teacher, so to speak, and you orate. … You say, ‘Now we will finish this section and move to the next. Put away these books and take down your green books.’ “

Science in the urban landscape?

Roehrig’s strategy of making scientific subjects more relevant to students seems obvious. Still, it doesn’t always happen. Why is that, I asked Green.

“I don’t know the answer to that question entirely,” he said.

There are a lot of pieces to the answer.

One is that many of the schools where we need to do a better job with STEM education are in urban settings, unlike the largely rural reservations where Roehrig has done so much work with studies of science grounded in nature.

“The urban setting requires more creativity, more time to figure out how the landscape can become a classroom,” Green said. “That’s something that’s a little harder for us to imagine.”

But to ignore that urban setting would be to write off a very significant reality of the students lives.

“The urban landscape can be every bit as useful as a classroom, but it takes more thought, it takes more active listening,” Green said. “And it takes courage because for those very committed teachers who work in inner city schools — they are dedicated to the kids, but there is an understandable fear of the neighborhood from which the kids come.”

The worry is that well-intended teachers will define success as molding the children into something unlike their neighborhoods, something that they are not and perhaps cannot be.

If, as Roehrig did, “you validate the world that they know and you see the richness that is there and you approach it from the angle of being a partner in doing what’s good for kids, you are going to get a different kind of experience with the kids,” Green said.

“Learning can be about continuing who you are, as opposed to who the educator/missionary wants to you to become,” he said.

Vision … force of personality … wisdom

Many teachers share Roehrig’s desire to break down silos and integrate science studies in a way that reflects the real world, Green said.

But barriers to doing that are all too common. For starters, a creative, inter-disciplinary approach requires a lot of teamwork and trust at a given school. In an era when many teachers get pink slips at the end of the year and must apply to other schools, it isn’t easy to build that teamwork and trust.

Sometimes it takes a teacher like Roehrig, an army of one, to knock down barriers and start building trust.

“Gillian had this vision,” Green said. “She also had her force of personality and the wisdom of her bosses to enable her to do what she knew needed to be done.”

So the trick is to replicate that combination of factors.

“The task of a school district is to encourage more people like Gillian to take leadership and to know that they will have more than one year to get it perfect,” Green said. “But there are all kinds of forces at play that discourage risk taking in public schools.”