In Idaho, a city is taking shape with an eye toward two very practical challenges: how to handle increasing amounts of storm water runoff and solid waste discarded by the city’s residents.

The engineers are students of Melyssa Ferro, an advanced science teacher at Syringa Middle School in Caldwell, Idaho, and a 2006 Walden University MS in Education graduate who was recently honored with the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and the 2015 Caldwell Teacher of the Year award. As her students present their designs to a panel of local experts, they feel confident that they’ve created a solution that works for everyone.

Their designs—in the form of SimCity computerized renderings and 3D models made from recycled materials—are part of the annual Future City program, a national competition that challenges middle school students to imagine, research, design, and build cities that showcase solutions to sustainability issues. At the end of the program, students present their designs to local engineering firms, sparking conversation and creating connections.

Participation in the Future City program is just one of the innovative approaches Ferro uses to engage her students. “I believe that science is a verb,” she explains. “You have to see, touch, taste, and feel science to understand it, so it should always have an active component.”

Ferro’s passion for science comes naturally. She had intended to become an engineer until she realized in her sophomore year of college that education would offer her greater influence. “I realized it was more important for me to help develop future science engineers,” she explains. “I’m passionate about STEM education.”

It Takes a Village

There’s good reason for Ferro to be enthusiastic. Nearly a decade ago, in response to a decline in STEM education, the U.S. government implemented a variety of initiatives aimed at improving the field. These days, most professions—from computer engineer to nutritionist—involve some element of STEM skills.

But teaching STEM isn’t without challenges. Many of Ferro’s students are minorities who have grown up in poverty and have had limited opportunities. That’s why incorporating educational field trips is so important to her teaching. She strives to provide her students with experiences outside of the classroom that are different from what they might experience in their daily lives.

As a teacher, Ferro has a fixed budget, which can make providing these experiences difficult. Ferro meets this challenge by partnering with community members to bring in donations of supplies, coordinate guest speakers and field trips, and facilitate ongoing mentorships. She sees it as her responsibility to reach out to businesses and interested community members to build relationships that become ongoing partnerships that lead to new, exciting opportunities for her students.

Building partnerships is something that flowed naturally during her Walden experience, she explains. She was consistently asked to collaborate with other teachers to share best practices for engaging young minds, an approach that the busy mother of two found far more dynamic than a traditional program. “In my cohort, we bounced ideas off each other and explained what was going on in our classrooms,” she explains. Ferro deeply values this type of collaboration, which is why she is so proactive in finding and developing new partnerships in her community.

Today, Ferro’s dedication has paid off, not just in the form of her national and local teaching awards, but in witnessing the progress and excitement of her students. “My goal is to ensure that they’re not watching science through a window,” she says. “They’re doing science—and looking into a mirror to see themselves in future STEM careers.” —Jessica Cerretani

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