Good educators think about the future. This affinity for things beyond the here and now makes sense when considering the fact that the mountainous task that teachers have taken upon themselves is all about what is to come.
Mike Roam, chairman of the Computer Sciences Department at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, New York, is one of those forward-thinkers and devoted individuals who have chosen education as their profession. And as a mathematician and computer scientist, he is particularly cognizant of how much is yet to come. "The future is coming at us faster and faster, and I hope that my work with children helps them lead creative productive lives while they are building a better world," says Roam.
Learning translates into fun for the students, ages 8 to 18, who benefit from Roam's vision and dedication to teaching. Roam's homeroom students break out into groups to play Fruit Ninja or Flight Control on iPads, games that serve to seed interest in computer programming or 3D animation.
Teachers in his department also offer courses that work with soft circuits (building circuits out of pliable materials such as paper, fabrics, thread, and even paint to make amazing creations such as t-shirts that interact with each other or artwork that can respond to movements). Roam teaches another course on space colonies, which examines the idea of whether the sun's solar power could be harnessed in space and beamed down to earth to help us become less dependent on oil. "I dream of a future for my students in which they help all of us think smarter — with well-organized scientific data being a big part of that — and find cleaner energy for improved lives worldwide — a world with advanced medical research, less hunger, and a cleaner environment," says Roam.
The computer department has developed in ways that couldn't have been imagined years ago when Roam was hired by St. Ann's in 1985. In fact, there was no computer department back then; the computer classes were part of the math department. Roam taught his students Pascal, BASIC, and some crude drawing programs using early-model Apple computers. "We didn't have servers, e-mail, nor much in the way of software toolkits," says Roam. "It was like trying to build skyscrapers using toothpicks."
In many ways, the interest that Roam has in the future, as well as his desire to make a difference in the world, seems embedded in the DNA of his family. His father, Gary, is a pilot and flight instructor who volunteered for the Air Force and now has a job flying biologists to help them track the nearly extinct Florida panthers in the Everglades. His mother, Kay, was also a pilot — a pioneer in the skies who was a flight instructor, weather forecaster, a founding member of the international organization called Women in Aviation; her duties included checking on Indian sites and flying search-and-rescue missions. One of his brothers served in the Peace Corps and studied geography, and eventually ended up doing work protecting the wetlands and helping form mosquito-control strategies for counties in California.
As for Roam, he too, wanted to do something that served humanity, and went abroad to find his path. The summer before his senior year at Princeton University, Roam went to Indonesia and came back more interested in human drama. He eventually turned his thoughts toward teaching, which fit in nicely with his love of showing people how to do things and his desire to do something to help others. "Sometimes my classroom feels like it's filled with puppies — as if the kids are wagging tails and rushing to sniff out the next discovery — and I have the happy job of showing them cool tools for drawing, thinking, and writing," says Roam.
When I met Roam to interview him for this profile, the school year was coming to a close and summer vacation was about to start. He was about to head out of town for a well-deserved vacation at Glacier National Park back home in Montana. But Roam said something that perfectly crystallizes his dedication to children and education. "School is so much fun with the kids," said Roam. "It's so empty without them."