NIU alum Sam Watt takes STEM Outreach to Beijing

Students from Dongguan Taiwanese Business school were among the more than 300 campers who attended STEM Outreach summer camps in 2015.
Students from Dongguan Taiwanese Business school were among
the more than 300 campers who attended STEM Outreach summer camps in 2015.

NIU alum Sam Watt will be in China using innovative, NIU-developed techniques to teach STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – to sixth- and seventh-graders in Beijing this school year.

Watt’s classes will be based around lab activities specially developed by STEM Outreach, part of NIU’s P-20 Center in the Division of Outreach, Engagement, and Regional Development.

“This invitation from Beijing demonstrates STEM Outreach’s international reputation as innovators in STEM teaching,” says Anne Kaplan, vice president of Outreach, Engagement, and Regional Development.

In China, traditional education in the STEM fields relies heavily on memorization and recitation.

Watt’s classes, by contrast, will stress learning by doing. His students will build balloon-powered cars, design simple machines, construct prosthetic body parts, and program their own computer animations.

“These activities aren’t about following instructions,” says Watt, who will arrive in Beijing in September. “They’re about trial-and-error, problem-solving and learning how to think like a scientist.”

International Innovation: From DeKalb to the World

Watt’s journey to Beijing is the culmination of months of work by STEM Outreach.

Sam Watt
Sam Watt

For four years, students from China and Taiwan have been coming to NIU for STEM summer camps. Last year, the trip coordinator from Asian visited NIU with a teacher whose students had attended the STEM camps. The trip coordinator was so excited by the students’ experiences and the teachers’ reactions that she asked STEM Outreach Director Pati Sievert to come to China and introduce hands-on STEM teaching methods to students, teachers, and education administrators.

Last November, Sievert taught STEM activities in China and Taiwan. At each stop, she led a hands-on STEM lesson challenging students to construct a neutrally buoyant toy.

“The kids got so into it,” she says. “They jumped in right away. The teachers could see their excitement.”

Sievert even had a gathering of principals build paper helicopters. “They were smiling and laughing,” she says. “It was like they became students for the afternoon.”

The staff of Beijing Academy, a K-8 school in the city’s Chaoyang district, were particularly impressed. They kept in touch with Sievert and eventually asked STEM Outreach to develop a year-long visiting teacher program for students plus a professional development curriculum for principals and teachers across the district.

“As soon as I knew we needed a teacher, I thought of Sam Watt,” Sievert says.

Since his first semester at NIU, Watt has been sharing his passion for STEM every chance he gets. While earning his physics degree, he volunteered every year at the university’s annual STEMfest and worked every summer at its STEM camps. After graduating last spring, he took his hands-on science skills to Bloomington, Ill., where he taught high school physics.

“The NIU approach to STEM – the hands-on, exploratory approach – has always been my favorite, and I’m excited to bring it somewhere new. There’s nothing like being in the room with students when they have their ‘a-ha!’ moment of really getting the concept.”

Sam Watt leads Engineering Amusement campers in constructing model roller coasters.
Sam Watt leads Engineering Amusement campers in constructing model roller coasters.

Benefits to the Region

Watt’s trip is part of a broader effort to connect NIU and its students and alumni to the wider world.

“International connections are very beneficial to our campus and the region,” says Marilyn Bellert, associate director of NIU’s P-20 Center. “Sam is going to be introducing the kids at Beijing Academy to a whole new way of learning – one that prepares them to invent the future. But there’s a big benefit for us here in Illinois, too.”

Students from Tsinghua high school attempted to build neutrally buoyant toys during Pati Sievert's first visit to China and Taiwan.
Students from Tsinghua High School attempted to build neutrally buoyant toys during Pati Sievert’s first visit to China and Taiwan.

For example, more international schools besides Beijing Academy have already asked STEM Outreach to create similar teacher-in-residence programs, which means more NIU students and alums could have opportunities for immersive teaching experiences abroad.

In addition, more students from China and Taiwan have enrolled in NIU summer programs, helping campers to increase their understanding of the world by learning with students from other cultures.

Some of those international students might even find their way to NIU as undergraduates through connections to NIU partnerships with Chinese universities such as Nankai. Plans are in motion for more Chinese teachers to visit NIU for training.

Middle school students in northern Illinois will benefit, too.

The lessons that STEM Outreach developed for Watt’s class in Beijing will be available for free online through SMARTspace@NIU, an online repository of learning games and activities for K-12 students. The site, coordinated by the P-20 Center’s Mary Baker is already being used by teachers across northern Illinois and in 137 countries.

As for Watt, he’s packing his bags and counting the days until he gets to bring the NIU STEM Outreach approach to China. “It’s going to be such an adventure.”

by Peter C. Baker

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