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Next Gen Pioneer Mike Wierusz

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STEM in Action: Common Core + Next Gen Pioneers

For the first time, engineering is a part of science standards in Washington. Mike Wierusz, an engineer-turned-teacher, is tackling them head on in his classes at Inglemoor High School.

Mike Wierusz switched careers from engineering to teaching in his thirties. He hasn’t looked back. “I’m in my zone now,” says the high-energy teacher at Inglemoor High School. He is pushing teams of students to think harder, take more risks, and to “blow his mind” with real-world projects that tackle everything from designing a sustainable, epoxy-free snowboard to building household water filtration systems for developing nations.

His room, #403, is a bustling idea factory. A sign taped to the door states: “I like. I wish. What if?” Bins inside the room are labeled “Awesome random prototype stuff.” A poster urges students to “make something happen and be safe!” There are 3-D printers, a laser cutter, a benchtop router, jigsaws, drills, vice grips, Legos, projection screens, and whiteboard walls. The shapeshifting furniture is on castors. In an instant, the colorful room – designed by students – can change from study hall to laboratory.

Projects here are not extra-credit after-thoughts. They are the functional core of Wierusz’s two classes: Sustainable Engineering and Design and an International Baccalaureate Design Technology course. The early-morning courses draw satellite students from across the region to the Kenmore campus. “I was bored with my regular high school classes,” says senior Eric Kim, who commutes thirty minutes each way. “I wanted to try something different.”

Different it is. After Wierusz introduces foundational concepts, content, and tools at the beginning of the year, student teams brainstorm positive-impact projects then leap into the unknown. “He just lets them go on the projects, lets them explore and discover answers on their own. It’s pretty courageous on his part,” says Inglemoor principal Vicki Sherwood, who worked hard to hire the award-winning teacher, an Allen Distinguished Educator.

Work in Room 403 can be messy, chaotic, and frustrating – more error than trial most days. But the kids own that, says Wierusz. “I ask them to trust me in this process; by the end of the year, they have a different sense of who they are and what they are capable of. They are managing their own time and solving their own problems. It’s a paradigm shift.”

It’s a shift schools should be exploring as they implement Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), say Inglemoor leaders. “STEM is the future for our students,” says Sherwood. The rigorous new standards are transforming STEM education, including that “E.” It’s the first time engineering has been included in science standards, and many teachers feel utterly unprepared to teach it.

The new standards require that students illustrate a deep understanding of sophisticated 21st century skills such as evidence-based reasoning and causal modeling. Students have to not only learn formulas and scientific laws, they have to make sense of the underlying principles and apply them to new settings, something Wierusz’s students do constantly in their hands-on project work.

For instance, students building a chair from only cardboard – no adhesives or staples –measured the human spine and extrapolated that data into their design. And a team developing a portable refrigeration unit for vaccines dug deep into the mathematical complexities of thermodynamics.

Wierusz says the new standards justify the work he does. “Students need to experience content, not just learn it.”

Teachers often ask him, “How do you do this?” He’ll soon be sharing his practices with educators across the state through STEM-PD, a pioneering professional development program developed by Washington STEM. It opens doors to classrooms using cameras to capture teaching practices in action. A web application allows teachers to discuss what they see, and Wierusz will be wearing an earpiece, so teachers can talk directly with him in real-time. Teachers can also don an earpiece and have him coach them as they try out new practices in their own classrooms.

STEM-PD is taking teacher collaboration to a new dimension. “The NGSS not only call for a deeper understanding of science but for students to solve real-world problems. Mike has built that into his classroom. So many teachers could benefit from his experience if they could visit his classroom and ask questions. STEM-PD gives them that ability,” says Sandi Everlove, Chief Learning Officer at Washington STEM.

Students say Wierusz’s classes are unlike anything they’ve ever experienced in school. And their teacher is unlike anyone they’ve ever met. They call him “Mr. Where Is,” because it’s hard to tell him from the students. He’s compact, has a boyish face, and is military-fit: he’s a bicyclist, break-dancer, and marathoner. He’s also father to two small children and, in his spare time, studies the apocalypse and riffs on a ukulele.

According to Wierusz’s students, he’s not only cool, he’s also super passionate about their learning. As work on their projects progresses, he is by their side, providing “just-in-time” teaching. He regularly brings in outside experts to consult on projects, offering students boots-on-the-ground advice and perspective. “If he doesn’t know something, he knows someone who does, and they’re suddenly there, helping us problemsolve,” says one senior.

“At the end of the year, when I ask students what they remember most, it’s the different people they’ve met – people they’ve worked with and gone out to their places to see them at work,” says Wierusz. “Is that education? Yes. Is that testable? Maybe not. But are we equipping a more prepared citizenry to be active participants in democracy and the work force and society in general? I would say yes.”

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