When a STEM Challenge becomes ‘Life-changing’
Middle school math teacher Robert Garcia knows the right kind of opportunity can spark a struggling student’s imagination, skills and confidence, to lead to a lifetime love of learning and problem-solving.
Seizing on the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, which challenges public school teachers and students in grades 6-12 to show how science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can be used to help improve their community, Garcia guided his math students at Crownover Middle School, in Corinth, Texas to become one of 10 national finalist teams during the 2016-2017 contest year– and, he says, confident citizens of the world ever since.
“Samsung’s contest ignited my students’ passion for math and changed their perspective on learning, and two years later, their desire for learning is still there,” Garcia said. “They’d felt defeated in previous years. They’d been struggling with the state assessments. Now they’re no longer afraid to make mistakes, fix them and just keep trying.”
Responding to hurricanes and floods that had hit the Houston area, Garcia’s team of seventh-grade Accelerated Math students designed natural-disaster temporary housing that was less like a trailer and more like a small home, while also being adaptable to different extreme weather conditions and efficiently transportable and storable.
“ there were a lot of displaced people who needed alternatives to live in while they were getting their homes and lives rebuilt,” said Garcia, who had worked as an architect before pivoting into teaching.
As Garcia’s class designed the project they named Casa de Samsung (Spanish for “home of Samsung”), Garcia said, they consulted with local architects, engineers and meteorologists and worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to earn a spot in the contest’s final pitch event in Washington D.C.
Their journey didn’t stop there, where his students had the chance to practice their public-speaking skills. Garcia and two of his team members, Arianna B. and Brianna R., later presented the Casa project to Senator Ted Cruz(R-TX) and U.S. Representative Michael Burgess(R-TX 26th District) in their offices at the U.S. Capitol.
Garcia and his students also addressed a regional conference on collaboration among higher education faculty and students, researchers and emergency management professionals, at the University of North Texas, in 2018. At the conference, Garcia and students Arianna B. and Brianna R. spoke on the importance of STEM education and building community relationships. “It was pretty incredible to see them get up and speak about what they got done with Casa de Samsung, and what it meant to them,” said Garcia.
For Garcia, the biggest takeaway for him from the 2017 contest was becoming even more convinced that “it’s important to step outside the box, find alternatives and tailor the curriculum to the kids.” He has since applied for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship to pursue his newfound passion for education policy reform.
“Samsung Solve for Tomorrow was life-changing for my students and for me,” Garcia said. “It was the key inspiration that started me reaching for more, trying to influence change. And it opened their eyes to a lot of career possibilities, like architecture, engineering and even politics and lobbying.”