A Reflection with Scientists for Tomorrow by Ashley Conroy

I am continuously learning what makes a good urban teacher, especially through my interactions with students, family and community. A great lesson I learned was not from a graduate education course, but from an insightful grandmother. She explained that her grandson was now at the age to enter a vicious cycle and she could see him starting to make the same poor decisions she had seen so many times. “What they need,” she said, “is someone to teach them that life goes beyond the block.” I’ve thought about that for two years now, about how sensitive but bold an individual must be to break those barriers and prove what can be a different future. Teachers in this system require balance; they must weigh all of the emotion that is required to work with a human medium. I truly believe in education as an opportunity to shape socially conscious individuals who are willing to help bring change to a world in need, and I want to make sure that every child in this city has that opportunity.

Throughout college, I was always trying to figure out my destiny.  I found myself experimenting with many different areas of study and activities.  I became the teaching assistant for one of my favorite psychology professors in his Behavioral Laboratory.  I was a peer leader, helping to teach a class of freshman through their orientation, and first semester in an interdisciplinary course called “The End of the World.” I began a Career Peer Advising position with the Career Services office in which I helped students build resumes and cover letters.  I became the President of Recruitment in my sorority, where I taught the younger sisters the process of gaining new members. I was a student coordinator for both the Emerging Leader’s Retreat and the Collegiate Leadership Conference, each focusing on helping students develop a sense of social justice within leadership positions. I gained a summer internship with a behavior modification program in which I worked with six to eight-year old children with high functioning autism and ADHD to develop better classroom and social habits.  Even with all of this experience under my belt, I still could not figure out what I should do with my future.  After graduation and in the midst of my job search, I finally put the pieces together.  There was a common theme throughout my life: I was a teacher.

I was given the opportunity to receive my teacher training at Columbia College Chicago (CCC). Their program challenged me academically, but more importantly it challenged me to see the world differently. It allowed me to see society through different experiences and how those differences affect children and their education.  Within the first few weeks of attending CCC, I met a man who would turn out to be another great influence in my life, my mentor, Marcelo Caplan.   Though I did not know it at first, our education philosophies aligned, and he, more than anyone I had met until that point, believed I would be a great teacher.

Marcelo invited me to a Professional Development for a program called Scientists for Tomorrow.  He promised that my attendance was not a commitment, that I should simply come to see what the program had to offer me in terms of my educational experience.  During that first session, I learned how to build a solar powered car, and was forever hooked.  For the past two years, I have worked closely with the Scientists for Tomorrow program, first as an instructor, then as the Associate Coordinator. Scientists for Tomorrow, in collaboration with the Department of Science and Mathematics at CCC, and selected Chicago community organizations, work with the youth and families from some of Chicago’s most distressed neighborhoods. The program enables families to realize the benefits of a well-rounded education that includes strong instruction in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)-related fields. We have developed and taught 10 week modules such as “Alternative Energy” in which we build solar powered cars,  and “The Physics of Sound and Mathematics of Music” where students build a monochord, wind chime and xylophone of their own.  Through this program, I have worked with students at the Association House in Humboldt Park, the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School with girls from various south side neighborhoods, and both Castellanos and Eli Whitney Elementary Schools in Little Village.

Being a part of this program has been integral to my experience at Columbia College Chicago.  It has provided an avenue for me to practice the pedagogy I so fully explore in my classes.  There are small and vital things that cannot be accomplished in coursework, such as introducing yourself to students on the first day, that SfT has allowed me to experience multiple times.  Because it is an informal after school program and primarily for middle school students, I have been able to develop relationships with students in a way that is different from the general education classrooms.  In this way, the students understand that I’m also a student learning to teach.  They are supportive of my attempts to try different techniques, and are very honest with their opinions.

Above all else, Marcelo and the program have taught me that teaching is learning, and learning requires teaching.  It is with this understanding that I enter the world of urban education, knowing that I will learn just as much as I will teach.  Without the support of such a quality mentor, I would not be so wholeheartedly diving into a sixth grade science and math teaching position within the Chicago Public Schools.  Thanks to Scientists for Tomorrow, I am excited to take on this challenge knowing that I will always be able to ask for help from my mentor.

Throughout my life, I have come across many amazing people who have molded and motivated the way I think and see the world.  One of the most influential, which I learned later in life, is my little sister, Alyssa.  Spending countless hours with her at the homework table in our mother’s house, I came to understand that not everyone learns the same way and that not all teachers are good teachers.  I was always a really good student; if I did not understand something, I simply taught myself.  My sister, however, did not have that ability nor did she have the resources to help develop her abilities. Developing this understanding, in combination with the experiences I had with students in many facets of my undergraduate career, I started to see the inequities in education and vowed from that moment to help be a part of the solution.

~Ashley Conroy~