Before I met Sandy Ratliff, the English teacher I was paired with for West High School’s annual career day, I learned a few things about her.
She’s been working with West’s STEAM Ahead program since its launch in 2014. That’s STEAM as in science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
Past students have rated her among the best teachers at West.
And she loves bacon.
I shared that information with Ratliff’s students during the four classes I taught Thursday, underscoring how quickly you can gather facts about someone through a quick Google search and by checking Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media sites.
I also emphasized how much more you can learn about someone when you meet them in person. In a media world transformed by the pace of the internet and shrinking newsrooms, journalists conduct fewer interviews face to face. We may get the story we need, but we lose perspective.
That lesson hit home while I was meeting with Ratliff’s freshman STEAM class. STEAM Ahead NH is a collaboration between the Manchester School District, the University System of New Hampshire, Manchester Community College and the business community. I asked Ratliff how students have responded to the program. In short: They have to work hard because they face a challenging curriculum.
“Everyone is different. They learn in their own ways,” said Ratliff, who has taught at West for 23 years. “Some people can cut it. Some people cannot. Some students stay. Some students go. And some students learn that they can do things that they didn’t know they could do.”
Stories about these programs often use workforce needs as the theme — how technology companies and defense contractors in the Granite State can’t find enough skilled workers to fill thousands of open positions and how programs like the one at West can help fill those gaps.
When I asked students to talk about what they were learning in the STEAM program I didn’t expect them to discuss the plight of Native Americans and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. While these teens may be learning how to master science and engineering and the arts, they’re also gaining a greater sense of history and social awareness — the kind of knowledge that grooms people for leadership.
“We learned about tribes and territorial areas, how they didn’t fit in with whites at the time and how it was racially diverse,” student Evan Gilland said.
“And how did that correlate with what you learned in here?” Ratliff asked him and the rest of the class.
That prompted student Madison Lacroix to describe what the class learned from reading “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie.
“We just talked about how it was kind of a struggle for the Indian people at the time because they were treated so differently, like they went to different schools than white people did, and they had different lifestyles,” Madison said. “At the end of the book we talked about their culture and how it affected their families and what they did on the reservations.”
Again, Ratliff asked the class to take it further: “And on the reservations — what did you do in engineering?”
“We got to pick an Indian tribe,” said student Leen Ghanayem. “We had to pick a problem that is going on in the reservation, and we had to make an invention that would fix it.”
The STEAM program aims to forge connections between disciplines. For example, the class studied the Holocaust in both geography and English classes — focusing on history and the countries where the Holocaust took place in geography, and expressing what they learned in Ratliff’s class.
“We had to make a visual presentation on it, either a PowerPoint or a poster, and then we read the book ‘Night,’ and that talked about a young boy named Elie Weisel, and his story and how he survived and his family story as well,” Madison said.
Those in-class presentations help STEAM students become more prepared for the workplace.
“It teaches you all the academic stuff but also helps you interact with people, and be more comfortable with them, and how to present in front of people, and just talk better and have people understand you more,” Leen said.
That sounds like good training for professionals preparing to talk to high school students on career day.