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STEM teaching tools 2.0

K-12 STEM education is constantly evolving, especially in regards to the tools for teaching these subjects. Digital textbooks and open electronic coursework from top universities are making access to knowledge much easier. One prominent effort in this direction is from the Providence Alliance of Clinical Educators (PACE), which was recently featured on NPR.

AAASMC spoke with William Brucker, the founder of this organization, to find out more about PACE.

AAAS MemberCentral: What is PACE? And what are its mission and goals?
William Brucker, founder of PACE:
The key to teaching any subject is to establish its relevance with the audience. The goal of our organization is to achieve this by showing concepts in action through parable-based lessons that include the target concepts as essential plot points. The stories are made as visceral as possible to maximize reader engagement and demonstrate the relevance of the concepts described within. Students always ask, "Why do I have to know this?" and it is our goal to answer that in interesting ways. Teachers can use our lessons to precede, augment, or act as follow-up materials to their lectures. It is not our goal to tell teachers how to do their job but rather to supply them with interesting examples that they can use to demonstrate the relevance of the subjects they cover. All of our products are free to schools and since they are online, a school is only limited by Internet access.

The most important aspect about our group is that we are an alliance between teachers and other professionals. The organization was designed to be an interdisciplinary society where individuals in different professional fields could write about the connections between what they did in daily practice and what students learn in school. Teachers communicate with us to establish subject needs and we work to develop lessons that match them; the more diverse the field of contributors the more interesting the lessons that we can produce.

AAAS MC: Give us a brief history of PACE.
Brucker: PACE's origin is really a culmination of different experiences that I had in both graduate school and medical school and it probably took five years for it all to come together. The rudiments of PACE began in 2006 when I had a biochemistry teaching assistant position at the medical school when I was a second-year medical student. It was a framework-heavy subject that the students typically had a very hard time with. Students hated the subject. After a few weeks giving TA lectures I realized that what I was doing was repeating the pathways over and over again and expecting the students to memorize them. I would think to myself, "Why do they have to know these; is it just so that they can repeat them, or answer some trivia on the wards?" I remembered hearing lectures like the ones I was giving and remembered hating them. They were dull, framework heavy and not engaging. I wondered why I was doing things the way that I was.

I tried to revitalize things by demonstrating the pathways in action through stories of poisonings and metabolic diseases, and the students really responded because they got to see the pathways in a functional sense. The experience resulted in me writing a vignette-based biochemistry primer for the Brown medical students at the end of that semester. I wanted to turn it into a textbook but there was a lack of institutional enthusiasm for the project and at the time it was enough to discourage me. However the desire to develop the parable based technique and continue teaching never left me, so I continued to give supplemental lectures in biochemistry to the students for several more years after my second year of medical school ended and I was in graduate school. 

AAAS MC: How did you build your team?
Brucker: Team building is something that I take very seriously. In research I learned that the quality of a team could make or break a project. The short answer for how I built it is basically living in Providence for 12 years and getting to know a lot of people from different backgrounds by being involved in teaching, science, and medicine. I recruit aggressively and know that on average for every five volunteers I get, only one of them will work out when things get tough. The key is figuring out who those "winter soldiers" are sooner rather than later. There was so much work that went into the products and distribution that if I didn't have the team that I did, then we would not exist.

AAAS MC: How do you reach out to the schools? Your website says that your stories are used nationwide. How do you interact with the teachers/what is your involvement in the classroom?
Brucker: We mine teacher contact information from high school websites and then send them an e-mail with a product sample attached. It is arduous but necessary work. This method was exceptional for developing relationships between teachers. Some of our closest relationships are with educators in Oklahoma, New Jersey, Alaska, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.

A few of these teachers want to have volunteer opportunities for their students and we were happy to help in that regard as well.

AAAS MC: What is your vision for PACE looking forward?
Brucker: My ultimate vision for PACE would be to have products that every school in America could use; we have some international spread as well but domestic schools are my priority. The more schools that use our products the more teachers we will be in contact with and the better lessons we will be able to make. One thing that we would like to do is actually create an entire curriculum; at the moment we are sort of piecing things into different places. For 2013 we are making a more concerted effort to hit every major teaching point within the AP Biology curriculum.

AAAS MC: And finally, what is your secret for time management?
Brucker: Time management is a difficult thing. I think that the most important thing is to realize your limitations and that is really where your team comes in. Everyone gets busy and in order to keep things moving while meeting the commitments of your life, you have to be able to shift responsibilities to a teammate. This is where good team building is very important, otherwise a project like this would eat me alive. I have said this a few times before but I am very fortunate to have a good team. Many hands make light work, and so sometimes a task can be divided ahead of time to accommodate a tough schedule. It was still pretty tough to get things going and there were a lot of long days, but it was always great to know that everyone else was sweating along with me.


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