Interview with Founder, Dr. Reid Whitaker

Posted by Science Explored on September 26, 2012

In 2010 you transitioned from school principal to educational entrepreneur.  What motivated you to start STEMscopes and what need did you see in the education world for it?

Reid_Whitaker

Having been a science teacher and a principal, I saw a huge need for inquiry-based activities and a variety of learning experiences to reach different modalities in the way in which students learn.  Also, teachers have limited time to find and organize resources from across the internet.  They need a “one-stop shop” and a place that was strictly aligned to the state standards.  I knew that no one had tried to tackle this head on, and I was willing to take the risk to do it.  While we had a lot challenges in terms of not much funding and resources, Rice University gave me the opportunity to make this happen.

 

How did your experiences as a former teacher shape what STEMscopes is today?

Having been a self-contained 5th grade teacher and an elementary science lab teacher in an inner-city school in Houston, Texas, I felt that we lacked the resources needed to get students engaged and excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers.  Working nights and weekends to come up with hands-on lessons and materials to reach my kids was daunting and took a lot of time.  I began to think that these resources should be something that teachers have in their toolbox so they have the more time to work with students one on one.  To me, the curriculum writer writes the sheet music and the teacher conducts.  It is hard to do both.

How do you feel Rice University helped you make this vision become a reality?

Rice University is a world-renown research institution that consistently ranks in the top 20 best universities in America.  It is a place where innovation, risk-taking, and research thrive.  I have been very impressed with the support structure and creative freedom here at Rice.  Without the support, help, and guidance from the university, STEMscopes would not be the curriculum it is today.

Rice University is known for its excellent programs in science, engineering, and math; currently, there is no College of Education at Rice University.  How did TAKScopes/STEMscopes get involved with Rice?

There doesn’t necessarily have to be a College of Education for K-12 outreach and Higher Education outreach to thrive at the university.  In fact, this is a benefit, because many times we are not stifled by bureaucracy.  The Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship is housed in the Provost’s Office for interDisciplinary Initiatives.  This is exciting in that it brings faculty and researchers from a variety of different departments at Rice – engineering, psychology, cognitive science, biology, etc. – to work together in helping students learn.

Tell us about Perry, the STEMscopes mascot – how did he come about?

Ah, Perry our mascot!  Well, he was formed from our predecessor, TAKScopes, in which he was in a submarine.  Our slogan then was Science…Dive in!  Since then, Perry is now off in space and has his own rocket ship.  However, Perry’s name came from the word periscope.  Because his eyes and head mimic that of a periscope we decided to call him “Perry”.  He has become something that kids and teachers relate to.

STEMscopes has the philosophy of “by teachers, for teachers.”  What does that mean to you?

STEMscopes was home grown; we weren’t imported from California, North Carolina, or Canada.  It was meant to be developed right here in Texas for Texas teachers.  This is really important for our consumers, because they know that there is a strict fidelity to the outcomes and learning objectives that students need to master in order to be successful in science.  It is a big deal and something teachers rely on heavily.

Where do you see 5 years down the road for STEMscopes?

The time and era that we are in could not be more conducive for the expansion of STEMscopes.  Our goal is to broaden our impact and not just improve STEM instruction and learning in Texas but across the nation.  We are working to make sure we create strictly aligned, relevant, hands-on, and engaging learning experiences to meet all students’ needs.  While STEMscopes 2.0 will incorporate a lot of technology using tablets, iPads, and digital lockers, we are also looking at how to incorporate machine learning or personalized learning pathways that will enable teacher and students to be laser focused on content that is relevant and important for mastery for each individual student.

You are recently a newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.  How were you able to build STEMscopes into a massive operation and at the same time go to school to earn your degree?

Wow!  Well, in one word it was “tough”.  I was traveling to Austin every week for class while keeping up with the project working around 60-70 hours a week.  Don’t get me wrong it was definitely a grueling time.  However, it was important for me to continue my learning in order to best lead our program for the future.  I’m excited that I get to focus on the research, production, design, and scalability of STEMscopes.  I think we have a lot of exciting stuff coming teacher and student’s way that will blow their minds in terms of resources to help them learn to love science.  The future is definitely exciting! 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us today?

I love hearing feedback from people who use the program so please email me at reid@rice.edu if we can do anything better.  Teachers are the most important people we support!

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