Bringing STEM Education Everywhere with Justin Sheehan

Promoting STEM Education with Justin Sheehan

Justin Sheehan sitting in classroomWelcome to another Learner Success Story, everyone! Today we’re speaking with Justin Sheehan, an experienced teacher who has taught numerous students coding in several different countries.

Thank you for joining us, Justin. To start this interview off, can you tell us a bit about how you got into coding and how it became a part of your teaching career?

My very first piece of functional code was a script I wrote in 7th grade on a Windows 3.x machine at school. At 9 AM and 1:30 PM every day, this script would set our middle school library computer to the highest volume and use an early voice to text program to loudly shout, “Who wants a coca-cola?!” Meanwhile, the CD-ROM drive would rhythmically open and close. Fortunately, my school employed a computer science teacher who saw the humor in my antics and chose to redirect my mischievous energy into more productive projects in the classroom instead of the detention hall.

Years later, I would enter teaching as a second profession after a brief time in finance. When I considered the subjects that had truly reached me as a student, I made the decision to pursue graphic arts and computer science instead of teaching a core subject like mathematics or science. My timing was perfect, as the early years of my career took place during a huge expansion of STEM teaching in schools. As the field grew to encompass exciting skills such as robotics, electronics, cosplay, and digital art, I did my best to grow my skills alongside my students’ interests.

Justin Sheehan instructing two students painting

It’s fascinating to see how this has stuck with you for so long! As you’ve been a teacher for quite a while, can you give us some insight into how teaching has changed because of programming and why you find it a worthwhile skill to teach to your students?

Teaching is an interesting field, because we spend much of our work lives looking forward to the bright futures our students have ahead of them. At the same time, teaching as a profession has often been slow to modernize; many of the practices in classrooms in 2019 are identical to those one might have seen in 1919. In the last two decades, however, a significant push to incorporate principles of technology and coding into the classroom has begun to change the face of education. Educators, learning researchers, and administrators alike are beginning to examine old assumptions and make profound changes in the way we approach our classrooms, our students, and the content and skills we value.

The coding skill set has proven invaluable to students across an array of disciplines – with the unique blend of design, as well as the analytical and procedural thinking that every programmer must adopt in order to create, iterate, and innovate with new projects. In the same way that music education leads to positive outcomes in mathematics, writing, and other areas, computer science education has a profound impact on a student’s capacity to think critically in any subject. These days, I find that parents have come to see these benefits, as well – they often request that I tutor their students in programming or engineering as a way to bolster their success in other areas of academia.

It’s wonderful to hear things are changing for the better with the help of programming, and it’s great you’re taking in part of them! As part of your teaching career, you’ve taught in several different places – including Mexico, where you developed coding camps to encourage girls to learn STEM subjects before high school. Can you tell us a bit about that experience and what inspired you to pursue such a fantastic project?

I firmly believe that industries that allow large swathes of the population to be excluded from their ranks do so to their considerable detriment. The contributions of women to the sciences, the arts, mathematics, technology, and engineering are virtually incalculable, and yet these fields and their histories remain heavily dominated by men. As a STEM educator, I see the active inclusion of girls in my programs as an ethical obligation – and a worthy investment in the future of the industries that I hope my students will join as they move into adulthood.

While it was easy to come to this perspective, the act of raising interest among elementary and middle school-aged girls proved to be a difficult task. Overwhelmingly, I found that even 3rd or 4th-grade girls had come to believe that the STEM fields were “boys only,” and that they wouldn’t enjoy camps tailored to a general audience. After taking some time to survey women who were teaching the same subject matter and involving local Mexican colleagues more familiar with the culture, we developed a series of “She Can Code!” camps focused entirely on girls. Our intent was to create an environment in which our younger girls could have positive experiences with STEM in a comfortable environment and begin developing an early interest and sense of confidence that would compel them to join our co-ed camps for older students.

Justin Sheehan instructing studentsYou really rose to the challenge there, and we’re glad such an initiative exists. Besides Mexico, though, at the time of this interview, you’ve just recently moved to China to help develop a coding and engineering program at an international school there. How do you go about developing a program like that, especially for an international audience?

The act of developing an entire Design Thinking department spanning 3 divisions of a mid-sized school has been at once challenging, rewarding, inspiring, and utterly exhausting! I was privileged to be given the opportunity to join the faculty at my school here in Dalian, Liaoning in order to open maker spaces in our elementary and upper school buildings. Alongside a great team of design thinking educators, I have worked to develop courses touching on robotics, engineering, programming, and video game design. We have tailored our courses to a unique body of international and bilingual school students, incorporating English language learning principles into our work in these varied disciplines.

In many ways, developing a curriculum for English language learners offers a chance to step back and take a broad look at the way we teach coding. We must consider how we use language, vocabulary, and careful scaffolding of concepts to introduce these brand new subjects to students who have a wide array of English fluency. It gives us another lens through which we can consider the balance of direct instruction and inquiry in our classes. This is one area where online learning can be a truly powerful tool for students. If they can pause, slow, or return to earlier parts of a video, or access instructional materials in text form, they can pay special attention to the language used in a way that is impossible in a classroom with a single instructor and 15 to 20 students. Furthermore, students who are newer to studying English can use tools such as translators and subtitles to assist with the most difficult concepts. In these cases, particularly for students who are advanced in their coding skills, platforms like Zenva have been absolutely invaluable.

Justin Sheehan laughing with students

The work you’ve done is truly amazing, and it’s fantastic that our courses have played a role in your teaching career. Can you tell us a bit more about how you use our courses and what specifically drew you to them?

Zenva courses have been useful to me in several ways throughout the last few years. I first came across Zenva courses while looking through online learning discussions among STEM teachers. The platform had just gotten started and several of us invested in the earliest courses right away. I used the course to round out my own skills in game design and, later, to bolster several of my students who had really taken to game design in Unity and Phaser.

These days, I make sure to monitor for upcoming curriculums and check the library of courses constantly. I am fortunate to have the budget to purchase a limited number of courses for students, as well, so that I can better support their independent studies and advanced coursework. Following along as a student uses a Zenva course, I am able to use materials from the course to assist in developing meaningful grading rubrics that provide useful feedback to the student while maintaining accountability in the educational environment. Although most of this would be possible without access to the platform, as an educator Zenva has given me back some of that precious planning time while allowing me to maintain a robust learning environment with rich content.

Justin, once again, we want to give you a big thanks for chatting with us. To round out the interview, could you tell us what advice you have for other teachers out there, especially those who are trying to push STEM subjects in different countries?

I have to say that STEM education, particularly in still-emerging educational disciplines like coding and engineering, is one of the best ways to ignite a passion in a student’s life that will stay with them for years to come. Beyond simply teaching a student to code, through the STEM disciplines we teach students to *think* deeply – to be mindful and aware. This analytical thinking isn’t just a coding skill, but rather a life skill with benefits across the modern curriculum. With the considerable complexity of these fields, online learning is an invaluable tool that allows us to remain flexible and allows students to lean into their interests while providing rich content with depth that allows for meaningful assessment. To my colleagues in this exciting field, my best advice is to dive into your own learning and empower your students to do the same!

A big thanks to Justin for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about his work in STEM education and its importance!

You can learn more about Justin’s professional credentials via his LinkedIn page.