Podcast: Fostering a Passion for STEM with Chicago Teacher Misty Richmond

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Photo: Science teacher Misty Richmond has been working for Chicago Public Schools for 17 years.

Welcome to season 4 of Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students. We see you. We want our listeners to feel not only inspired and reinvigorated by the practice, but to also have a renewed sense of community.

To celebrate the new year, we spoke with Misty Richmond, a middle school science teacher at James Ward Elementary School, part of Chicago Public Schools in Illinois. Misty was recently named an Illinois Finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and a Region 7 Director for the Illinois Science Teaching Association. By introducing her students to a range of careers paths and opportunities like the Chicago Invention Convention, she encourages a lifelong passion in STEM for her students.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH. I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend and learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.

Today, I spoke with Misty Richmond, a middle school science teacher at James Ward Elementary School in the Chicago Public School system.

A CPS graduate of Lindblom Technical High School, Misty earned her Master of Education from National-Louis University. She is passionate about social and emotional learning and enjoys working with her fellow educators through mentoring and professional learning.

Misty was recently named an Illinois Finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and a Region 7 Director for the Illinois Science Teaching Association.

Now, let’s get to the episode.

Hey Misty. I'm Noelle. Welcome, everybody. Misty, I know you're a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, so we're going to jump right in here. I want to hear, what is your biggest science teacher motto? What do you live by every day in your classroom with your students?

Misty Richmond: I think honestly, what I live by even more so than just as a science teacher, as a teacher, I want my students to feel welcomed and safe in my classroom, and safe in a lot of ways, especially given the times that we're in. But for me, usually, I mean for that to be a safe space for them to feel comfortable sharing ideas that they're unsure of because it can be tricky as a middle schooler to share ideas in front of your classmates when you're not a hundred percent sure of what you're thinking. This idea of first draft thinking is really scary to share as a middle schooler and even as an adult. I really just want my students to feel comfortable doing that. I feel like for me, that's what's most important for me in my classroom.

Noelle: Misty, I just have to tell you, teacher to teacher, but as a parent, the science fair is a source of causing me hives. Is that still a thing? Do you still see a lot of families overwhelmed?

Misty: I have to say, I can't say that science fair, or anything that culminates in a big product or project, will ever not take over and consume the whole family's life. There's no magic way to make that go away for sure, but what I will say is, you have to ask yourself, as the family supporting this student, what is driving this student's choice in what they're choosing for their project? For me, I feel like a student that wants to do the project is the student that has made the selection of what they're doing. I find too often, sometimes someone else is spearheading the project, and it's not the student, and they're less likely to do the hard work. They'll get it done because it needs to get done, but when the student owns what they're invested in and what they're working on, the hours that they will spend doing that would shock you. It would really shock you.

I think it's really more about when students are choosing a project, helping them to find something that really excites them. At our school, we've shifted from a traditional science fair to engaging with the Chicago Student Invention Convention. For our purposes as a school, we see it as more of a way for students to continue this idea of problem solving. Coming up with a solution to a problem that they might have when creating something.

Noelle: Chicago Invention Convention.

Misty: Yeah.

Noelle: Is that something that's led by the city? Is it an opportunity for young entrepreneurs and future scientists? How did that come to be?

Misty: All of the above. Like I said, my principal has this vision of what she wants or where she wants to see our students. She wants us to be producing a lot of students interested in STEM fields. She knows that if we are not getting them engaged at the school level now, in elementary school, the thought of them doing this in college may be overwhelming so she wants us to help prepare. She actually got started with the Chicago Student Invention Convention. It comes through the Chicago Innovation Foundation. They have, I don't know, thousands of students every year that exist as student inventors, and they work with school sites, but they also work with after-school programs, and sometimes different after-school care centers will have a teacher or some sort of adult sponsor that hosts the club.

At our school, all of our students, generally from third through eighth grade, are in some way engaging in this work. One of the things we've found to be super helpful when working with the Invention Convention is we have the opportunity to be partnered with mentors. These are going to be people in the field, people who, maybe they started their own company, or maybe they have their own product that they're selling. They come as mentors to work with our students helping them develop their idea further. Students come up with their initial ideas on their own of what they want to invent and we work through some prototyping designs. And then we have the mentor come in and the students present, almost like Shark Tank-style, of their invention to the mentor, and the mentor then walks them through different questions they might want to think about. "Well, are there other materials that you could make this out of? Who do you think is your audience for this product?"

It's really helped the students be successful when they go to present their invention at the citywide competition. We've really been surprised by some of the things that students come up with. I had a few students a few years ago that had gotten a seat at the national competition because they wanted to come up with a contact lens for someone that was color blind because they were like, "Why do you have to have glasses?" This came from a student concern. Their grandmother was color blind, and they thought it was not fair. They thought a contact lens would be a cool solution. They have to do their research on, "What exactly is it when someone was color blind? What would the contact lens need to be like to work?"

Misty: The things that students come up with are mind-blowing every year. I feel like what's nice is that this program with Invention Convention allows students to leave this program being able to connect with patent lawyers and potentially further develop and produce their own ideas that they just came up with on their own. We've really started to keep our students being engaged in this work, and really, "Hey, if I have a problem, I can help with a solution to that." This idea of just, "Oh, I don't know. I can't. There's nothing I can do about that," is not where we want our students to be thinking. I feel like we've been able to really see students shift their thinking over time. I feel like sometimes, as a seventh and eighth-grade teacher, where we have a whole school of people working towards this vision, I get to reap the benefits of all of the hard work of all of my teachers before me, so that when I'm talking, "Okay, we're going to get started with Invention Convention," students have already come up with four or five ideas before they ever get to me that they've been thinking about and working on. Sometimes they're like, "Oh, I want to make a change to the one that I started last year because this is some of the feedback that I was receiving or whatnot."

This year, in particular, I just went to training for this year's session. It was virtual last year, and it was good. The Chicago one's going to be virtual again this year, but it'll be May 7 this year virtually. They run it through this software Hopin, which is, it's like a very fancy version of Zoom or Google Meet, but there are multiple meeting rooms, and they're always looking for judges. It's open to the public. If you just go on their website, as they get closer to registration and things like that, it's definitely something that's open to the public. I encourage educators to get their students involved even if it's at a small scale.

One thing I will always say, too, is when we have students that go from our classroom kind of fairs, to our city fair, I always make it a point of saying — because choice for students, I think, is super important — just because you came up with this great idea doesn't mean that you really want to move beyond our classroom fair. What I found is it's better to ask the student, do you want to go to the next level of competition, rather than forcing a student to go to the next level. Because it is work. They are going to have to make some revisions, do some more paperwork. There is work involved in moving to that next level. It's additional work right on top of what they're doing in school already. As much as possible, try to give students choice, when we can, in the classroom. I want you to do it because I want you to have this process and learn about the engineering design cycle as a student, but I also know that not every single one of my students, as much as I want them all to go into a STEM field, they're not all going to go that route, but it's important that they have experiences to know, "I like this," or "I don't like that."

I think one of the things that we have to do as educators, as parents, is give students a lot of experiences so they can know early things that they really like and things that they don't like. I tell my students, we have four major disciplines of science. We have physical sciences, life sciences, earth, and space. We have engineering. You might not love earth and space science, and somebody else really might. We learn a little bit of each of these every year, so you can find out, "Man, I didn't really love that lesson on rocks, or that whole unit on rocks. That wasn't in my jam, but now that you've got to this physics, I'm all about them. I really like that." Helping them to see that science is bigger than just the one idea that they have of what science is and even what a scientist does. As much as possible, we like to have guest speakers come and talk to students about like, "Hey, I work in a STEM field, but is what I do for my job." And so students can be like, "Well, how'd you get into that? Do you like that? Is that a fun job?" There are so many career options for students. We want them to be able to get to know a little bit about all of them.

Noelle: Your students, your school district, is so lucky to have you, Misty. My understanding when I read your bio is that you're actually a graduate of Chicago Public Schools. Do you want to give a shout-out?

Misty: Oh, absolutely! Yeah. We can start. I went to kindergarten at Mason on the west side of Chicago. Then I spent first through eighth grade at Luther Burbank, also on the Northwest side. For high school, I went to Lynn Bloom, and that's on the south side, in the Inglewood neighborhood. I graduated from there in 1999. I'm very fortunate with the experiences that I had in Chicago Public Schools. My mom was an educator in Chicago Public Schools. For me, I am super passionate about working in Chicago Public Schools because I know that we have students here that are going to change the world. Our district is a large district, but I know that we have students with the potential that will be changing our world. They're going to come up with things that I'm going to need that I don't know that I need yet. I know that.

To have a small role in getting them excited about science, getting them excited about whatever they're going to do in life, and realizing, "Hey, I am important. People do care about me." That's what I want students to leave with. I always say if a student left me, and maybe they don't remember everything they learned about science from me, I want them to remember that Ms. Richmond cared about me. She wanted me to be successful. She wanted me to do well. I feel like if my students leave that way, then they're going to know that they matter, and we want them to be successful. I always love when I hear from students who come back to visit, or you hear from family members that are like, "Oh, my students really liked your class." You see them in different places.

I think some of the best experiences are randomly hearing from a student, or seeing a student, or running into a student. I think one of the more recent ones that really was just so funny. I was in a drive-through at Portillo's.

Noelle: Oh, Portillo's!

Misty: They'll have, in the drive-through because the line is so crazy, they'll often have people running around collecting your orders or whatever. A woman comes up to the counter. She's wearing a mask. I'm wearing a mask. There's no, I totally know who's there. All of a sudden, they're like, "Oh my God! Ms. Richmond?" I'm like, "Okay, this has to be a student because who else would be calling you Ms. Richmond?" And then she pulls her mask down. "Oh my God! I'm so glad I get to see you." She's telling me all about what she's doing and she says, "Oh my gosh, Ms. Richmond, I just got promoted to manager." She wanted to share things that she was proud of. I was like, "Oh my God, it's so good to see you."

The moments like that, where it's like, we didn't spend time talking about what we learned in science class, but you wanted to talk to me, meaning that I had a positive impact in your life. For me, that's huge because that's what I want. I want you to—whatever you go off to do in life—I want you to feel like you're supported in going off to do that. No matter what your background is. No matter what your home life might be like. Because some students really do have a difficult home life, but they learn that they can do whatever they want, regardless of what their beginnings are like.

Noelle: I'd be at the drive-through going, "Okay, you have just made my day. I'm going to add a Portillo slice of chocolate cake," because you just can't find that chocolate cake anywhere else. I might live in Florida, but I used to live in Chicago. I know Portillo's menu. The whole experience of the drive-through.

Misty: Yes!

Noelle: I just would've been like, "Chicago dog, hold the sports pepper, and yes, a little bit of extra celery salt and slice of chocolate cake."

Misty: Absolutely.

Noelle: Misty, this has been a lovely conversation. I'm so excited to just be thinking about science. I've learned about the Invention Convention. I definitely totally agree that educators should be paying attention to that. Watch it, leverage it. You gave so many great tips. Our last question, my last question that I ask every one of my new teacher friends. I think every teacher should have a walk-up song that's playing in their head when they enter their classroom. My last question, what is your walk-up song?

Misty: Wow. I think as a female science teacher, my walk-up song that I would be thinking of also just happens to be my favorite musical artist, is "Who Runs the World," by Beyonce.

Noelle: Yes! Who Runs This World?! Girls, yes.

Misty: Yep. That would be my walk up song.

Noelle: All right. I'm with you with Beyonce. I can throw Beyonce any time into my playlist. My walk up song. I'm glad we've made this connection. We will now have a forever connection.

Misty: Absolutely.

Noelle: I hope you've enjoyed being a guest on Teacher's in America, and until we talk again, thank you.

Misty: Thanks so much, Noelle. It's been great.

Noelle: Thanks for joining us on the podcast today. If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Until next time, your friend, Noelle.

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Misty was recently named an Illinois Finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

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