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Elizabeth Middle students pick up STEAM

Enthused educator shares love of material with curious learners

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Brandon Whittaker stands at the front of the classroom and asks for silence. The chatter becomes whispers, then silence, with the exception of one student who sharpens his pencil; it must have been brand new or extremely dull because he grinds loudly, examines, and breaks the quiet again as he cranks the sharpener energetically.

In a soft voice, Whittaker, the 41-year-old STEAM teacher at Elizabeth Middle School, tells his students to glue the latest handouts into their composition books. The graph paper inside the books holds volumes of handwritten notes, and various instructions on how to make balsa wood race cars, an egg drop, and now, a section on bridges.

The class just started their new unit, and will research, create pamphlets, and construct small bridges in groups. Whittaker goes on to describe the different types of bridges around the world, and iconic examples of each, like the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges. As he speaks, the grinding of the pencil sharpener sounds again as the student with the recently sharpened pencil performs his task once more with renewed vigor.

The classroom is decorated with recent projects from this semester and last. On display are bridges, race cars, dangling stars constructed from metal, ceiling tiles bearing pre-teen artwork, plus bold lettering in multiple languages around the room's walls that states: “Learning to live in a technical world.”

The class is composed of students enrolled for various reasons, but true to the STEAM stereotype, consists mainly of boys. A ratio of 14 boys to four girls illustrates the current effort to draw women into careers in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. Cassy Perry, 14, said it “sometimes feels weird,” since she has never been in a class with that much imbalance. But of all the students who should be taking that class, Perry certainly belongs.

“I'm hoping to become an aerospace engineer,” she said.

She enjoys Whittaker's class because he is strict on chatter, and keeps the students active. “I like building things,” she said.

Without embarrassment, Whittaker said he does not try to be a popular teacher, and has no intention of trying for that achievement. His goal is simple. He wants the kids to learn, which he does mainly through hands-on activities.

“What I try to really do is get the kids into a way of thinking where they solve problems,” Whittaker said.

So instead of daily lectures and textbook readings, Whittaker uses tactile approaches. Something as simple as folding paper airplanes served as a lesson on aerodynamics.

“I use the process of building, which the kids love to do,” Whittaker said. “When I do talk about physics and math, it's directly applicable to what they're going to do.”

Principal Pamela Eschief took on Whittaker in 2017 in an effort to bolster the middle school's STEAM program.

“We hired Brandon as the technology teacher because he had so much knowledge and excitement for the program,” Eschief said. “Brandon is very patient and very willing to work with all students. He listens to the students' ideas and helps them improve on their projects to make them better.”

Whittaker, who has taught STEAM for more than 15 years in Aruba, Guatemala, China and schools around Colorado, did not end up teaching middle-schoolers by chance.

“In high school, kids already fermented ideas in their heads about what they want to be,” he said. “But they only have ideas about what they want to be in middle school.”

Just as teaching middle school was not by chance, neither was the location, which harkens back to his own education at Elizabeth High School. He, his wife and their two kids now live in the town of Elizabeth.

“I really try to make this as rigorous as I can,” he said. “We have a lot of problems in this world. We have to have people who can figure it out. I believe we can engineer ourselves out of these problems.”

By teaching, Whittaker said he affects thousands of people over time, and he hopes they can apply the critical thinking skills learned in class, to the real world.

“I think the character traits that are special about Brandon is his willingness to help all students and staff,” Eschief said. “He has an excitement about the future of Elizabeth Middle School and where the students can go in the field of STEAM.”

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