Middle school teacher harnesses the power of STEM to help struggling students

Washington MESA names Phill Schmitt its 2017 Outstanding Teacher

9/19/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

The first time teacher Phill Schmitt suggested using hands-on science and technology education to boost achievement for struggling students, a few fellow educators expressed doubt.

Some teachers had traditionally thought of STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—as something for high-achievers.

“It might work for your gifted kids, but it won’t work here,” a few colleagues predicted.

But Schmitt, who came to Tacoma’s Gray Middle School after teaching gifted students in Federal Way, proved otherwise.

Last year, two of his sixth-grade STEM science classes at Gray—classes aimed at kids who struggled—showed the most growth on state and district tests of any science classes in the building. 
The school’s after-school MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement) club that Schmitt mentors started with eight students a few years ago. It now includes nearly 90. Girls, traditionally underrepresented in STEM classes and careers, make up about half of club members.

MESA girls in pink shirts
MESA seeks to improve diversity among science and technology students 
MESA, a network of programs in Washington and 10 other states that aims to improve both racial and gender diversity in STEM fields, recently recognized Schmitt’s work, naming him Washington’s 2017 Mona Bailey Outstanding MESA Teacher.
Prior to receiving the award at a Sept. 15 event in Bellevue, Schmitt shared some of his thoughts on STEM education.

STEM power

Schmitt embeds math in the projects his students create—like designing a balsa-wood model plane that will fly. 

“Through a lot of hands-on stuff, you can tangibly see if things fit, what measurements mean,” Schmitt said.

Remembering his own school experiences helped him reach students. He said he always excelled at science, but he never thought of himself as a brainiac.

“I took business, welding and cabinetry,” he recalls. “I learned more geometry in cabinetry than I ever did in geometry class.”
He explains how easily students can get off track.

“We know if kids get disengaged for too long, it’s not that they can’t comprehend the concept, or that there’s any true learning disorder or problem going on; it’s that they’re bored or tuned out,” Schmitt said. “Year after year, add that up, and the next thing you know, you’re behind.”
STEM education, Schmitt believes, has the power to re-engage those students.

Several of his students last year had failed math since their elementary school years, and at least one seemed headed for special education classes. 

The hands-on approach made a difference. To make their balsa-wood planes soar, for example, students started studying designs from The Boeing Co. Others learned the new language of computer code.

Soon, Schmitt’s struggling students acted a lot like his former gifted students, developing a thirst for knowledge. 
The student once destined for special education now performs at grade level—without the special education label.

Another formerly shy student became a student leader.
“She learned to access information for herself,” Schmitt said. “When she wants to know something, she’ll find it. When somebody says something, she will check it out. That type of learning is where we’re going.”

Education’s his Act Two

Before he became a teacher, Schmitt served six years as an active duty soldier with the U.S. Army, including two tours in Iraq, followed by four years as a reservist.
When his military service ended in 2010, he took advantage of the federal Montgomery GI Bill to earn multiple college degrees in interdisciplinary science, international human rights, Asian studies and more.

“There were times that I was taking 24 or 30 credits from multiple schools,” he said. “I had the floodgates opened.”

As an Army military police officer, he repeatedly encountered individuals “doing the wrong thing.”

He started thinking about how he might put his education to work to get young people headed in a more positive direction.

His wife, Lindley Schmitt, teaches calculus at Bellarmine Preparatory School, a Catholic high school in Tacoma. 

She suggested he try teaching.

Now he’s hooked on the value of STEM education. 

“Some of the skills we’re talking about—20 years from now—they will be some of the most basic things everybody has to have,” he said. 

He believes STEM learning provides high value for Gray’s diverse population, which is nearly equally divided among Hispanic, African American and white students. 
Bringing more diversity to STEM fields can only bring more creativity, he believes.

“The idea of diversity in biology—it’s how we overcome problems,” Schmitt said. “No matter what the species, diversity solves problems.”