Q&A with Mary Jane Gibson, M.D.

“Don’t ever let anyone stand in your way of achieving your goals in an effort to help others.” Mary Jane Gibson, MD

During my annual physical, I braved asking my physician if she’d be willing to share a bit of her story as a medical doctor–focusing on her career path and the choices and experiences that shaped her along that journey. She said she’d be happy to respond in writing to any questions I had, so the following is the result of this interaction in May 2019.

Dr. Gibson has more than 29 years of experience. She received her medical degree from the James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University. She is also the previous Chief of Staff at Northside Hospital.

Mary Jane Gibson, MD
Growing up on a farm right down the road in the Sulpher Springs community, her passion for medicine initially drew her to becoming a veterinarian. However, she soon realized her calling was with helping and caring for the needs of people.

When she is not providing medical care, Dr. Gibson enjoys being married and working together with her husband in the yard landscaping and gardening. If time permits, they enjoy their fair share of traveling and hiking.

Source: http://sofha.net/providers/mary-gibson


Q: What inspired you to become a doctor?

A: I was always interested in science since my father was a chemist and my mother was in pre-med after a career in teaching. I grew up on a farm and found that I had a love for helping animals. When my father had an acute illness and had to be treated, I realized that I wanted to be a physician to be able to help people and be there for my family when medical issues arose. My older brother went into Internal Medicine, and I saw the impact of care upon people.

Q: In a nutshell, how did you get started?

A: I started medical school at age 20 (skipped senior year in high school and then went to summer school to finish early), and then followed with residency. My first job was with Johnson City Internal Medicine. I wanted to settle in the area where I grew up due to the beauty, access to outdoor activities, kindness of the people in the region, and to be near my family. I interviewed with several groups and wanted to practice with the group that I am currently with because of the quality of care that was given to the patients. I have been in practice with Johnson City Internal Medicine since 1990.

Q: As a female pursuing the sciences, did you receive encouragement or discouragement along the way?

A: Seldom was encouragement ever given. Discouragement was frequent, but I was always taught to be steadfast and determined to complete my goals. There has always been a difference in status with the medical field in regards to being female.

Q: Tell me more about your career over the years.

A: My career started with office and hospital work. We made rounds in the hospital in the morning, went to the office and then were on call every 6th night (and this varied after other partners joined the practice). After having been up all night, we worked the next day in the office. I kept up this exhausting pace until 2015 when we added a full hospitalist system to our group. Since then, I have been office based only. The insurance requirements have worsened and the change to electronic medical records as a requirement has certainly frustrated the physicians since it takes away from patient care.

Q: You rose to some leadership positions in your career (president of the Tri-County Medical Association, Chief of Staff at Northside Hospital). What was that journey like?

A: This was frustrating. In some of the meetings, the male members didn’t even hear what I said and would actually repeat my statement [as if it were their own idea]. Others would agree with the male doctor who repeated my idea, telling him it was a good idea.

Q: Did you personally ever focus on women in the sciences through organizations you belonged to or through particular research?

A: I just always tried to support all the students and residents I taught, whether male or female, to help them to not only learn the science, but to have compassion and learn about each individual they worked with.

Q: Do you now or have you in the past belonged to professional organizations in your field?

A: I didn’t like the organizations related to medicine since they seemed motivated by politics and not focusing on quality of care for the patients.

Q: Can you relate an interesting or memorable story from your career that highlights the work that you have done or do?

A: There are too many to tell. The most memorable are the relationships formed and the care that I have been able to provide to make an impact on people’s lives and improve the quality of their life.

Q: What advice or message would you give to anyone pursuing a career in medicine?

A: I am very frustrated with the lack of quality patient care that has been worsened by the insurance market.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

A: Don’t ever let anyone stand in your way of achieving your goals in an effort to help others.

Tech-Centered Initiatives

In the New York Times, Steve Lohr writes that while “preparing people for tech jobs is hailed as the great employment hope of the future, it’s not happening for the underserved populations in our country.” Many small efforts exist, he notes, but are not even close to touching “a swath of the labor market anywhere close to the size of manufacturing.”

His article begins with Brittney Ball’s story. “She was living in a homeless shelter with her baby when she learned of a one-year program offering technical training, professional skills, and an internship.” He says, “She took the plunge,” and now is a software engineer in Charlotte, N.C., making more than $50K per year.

Enter Year Up, a nonprofit organization that recognizes the potential out there and works to connect people to various internships and apprenticeship programs. Brittney Ball got her start through this organization. This video encapsulates the problem and demonstrates Year Up’s solutions:

Recently, while thinking about the need for a change in our education system, I’ve wondered what needs to be done to get the word out. What word? Well, that there are millions of minorities that have untapped talent because of incorrect notions of intelligence ingrained in teachers and administrators, and because girls are told they can’t do math by peers, parents, and teachers (and that’s not even the half of it). To progress in this nation–to fill the tech jobs of the future and keep the U.S. competitive in the global economy–we’ve got to get rid of those fallacies.

So I heavily pondered, as I typically do while feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, could we destroy the fallacies and change the thinking of the majority of our teachers, and while we’re at it, of our parents? In my mind, I see this as an insurmountable problem because it involves too many people needing to rethink and reformulate their belief systems–and while through education or professional development, many people can begin to understand the problem and adjust their thinking in order to open the way for so many who’ve had doors shut in their faces just because of their gender or race or socioeconomic status, there are still those whose belief systems stem from racist or patriarchal mindsets that are not easily overcome. This made me feel sad, as if change would come too slowly and the cycle of lost opportunity would keep on going and going like the Energizer Bunny.

Skills aren’t always measured by a diploma. They’re measured by the experience you gain and the type of training that you receive.

Noel Ginsberg, CEO, InterTech Plastics and CareerWise Colorodo

I felt a million pounds lift from my mind when I read the NY Times article today because it led me to resources that I was not previously aware of: Year Up, and also to TechHire, Skillful, and Per Scholas. After perusing their websites, I cheered! Yay that there are great big nonprofits with financial backing, partners, and media presence who are able to bridge the divide for young adults who were failed by the K-12 system, or as Per Scholas calls them, the “overlooked talent pools.” Yay, I thought to myself. I understand that the message may take a long time to reach every parent with daughters and every teacher with minority students, but that is okay because together, we are stronger. I wonder what other organizations exist to lift people up in this way? I know I’m just beginning to scrape the surface, and I certainly hope to make more positive discoveries as I dig and read and learn. I’ll keep you posted!

Per Scholas connects “overlooked talent pools” to good paying jobs after training.

Providing Opportunity in the Digital Economy: A video from Markle and Microsoft on creating a skills-based labor market:

Perspective on Blue Collar

We’ve lived in our new house about a year, and it was time for the builder to send someone to fix the things on our 11-month list. That included a fairly wide and long crack in our garage. I was just about to drive away to go to Planet Fitness for a workout when I saw an older man coming up my driveway. I rolled down my window and said hello.

It turns out he was there to fix the garage crack. No worries. I could work out later. I told him to give me a minute to shuffle some stuff around in the garage to give him room, which he did. I moved the tools, recycle bin, ladder, boots, boxes, and a few other small items. He helped with the last bit, then got right to work.

Now I didn’t hang out in the garage with him to guard my property, as some might think. No, not at all. In fact, I just adore talking with people, and this fella was so interesting. He had the longest, deepest southern drawl, ya’ know, where the word nice is said like it has six of the letter “i” in the middle – niiiiiice. And he had that wonderful Tennessee mountain colloquial speech that sounds so melodic to me. “Oh son,” he told me in the midst of a childhood story, “oh son, ifin I didn’t do my homework, let me teeeellll you, son.” Or, “Ifin I didn’t work in the garden, no supper for me.”

He spoke with love about his dogs, told me about huntin’ for ginseng in the mountains (but now ye need one of them permits). Most interestingly, he said that he always wanted to be a scientist. He just didn’t know what it was about him, but he just loved science, he said. However he never finished high school because he quit to work. “Been workin’ since I was 12. And ’em kids today, oh son, let me teeeellll you son. They don’t know nothin’ ’bout workin.”

Even though his dream to become a scientist never saw fruition, he said he loves his job working with stones and bricks. “It’s like doin’ art. Ain’t nothin’ make me more happy.”

Certainly this kind fellow’s trade doesn’t exactly count as a STEM career–at least I don’t think it does. Nevertheless, I loved this man’s attention to detail as he worked on the crack in the garage, and I appreciated his stories, his attitude, and his seemingly gentle nature. Well schooled by the mountains and his mama and papa and hard work his whole life, he has carved out a niche for himself that clearly brings him satisfaction.

I could go on an on about the pleasantries we exchanged while he repaired the garage floor, but I won’t because I have a single point I wish to make–starting with some questions. I understand that many families in our country over the years have expected children to work the farm, resulting in many youngsters who never finished school, but why did this man pull back from school when he had a love of science? I wish there had been a way for him to balance home life and school. And if we brought someone like him to share in a classroom, wouldn’t he be full of scientific knowledge he could share, such as how to find ginseng in the woods and what it is used for? Couldn’t he share how to grow a garden? Couldn’t he talk about the properties of cement and bricks and the engineering required to build a fireplace correctly?

I just feel like there is so much overlooked talent in our world. I feel, from what I have witnessed in the world, that workers such as this kindly man are often dismissed by the educated. I wonder what it would take to convince teachers to look in unexpected places for classroom experts? Sure, the big chemical company down the road is full of scientists and engineers. But the fella who spent his whole life messing with the art of bricklaying and the science of pouring concrete (which gets mixed according to the air temperature) should be on a teacher’s call list, don’t you think?

As we parted, he extended a hand, which I took right away to shake hard–even as he was saying “my hands are dirty.” I replied that dirty hands are a sign of creativity, and told him that I love hobbies that get my hands messy, like gardening. In fact, I told him I wanted to start learning how to carve bowls out of logs with old-fashioned tools. On that remark, he opened up more. He said, “I draw. Yes m’am, I draw horses and dawgs and mountains so perty. My boss man, you know Mike? He says he wants to buy some of my pictures. Noooo. I couldn’t do that.”

What holds him back? He has so much to share.

A Day at the Lab (Job Shadowing)

Job Shadowing AT JC Internal Medicine

Johnson City Internal Medicine is one of only a few medical offices in the Johnson City, Tennessee, area with an on-site lab, much to the delight of patients and doctors who like quick results, and while I didn’t observe anyone who seemed overly excited to have their blood drawn, the cheerful nature of the phlebotomists kept things light and relaxed for everyone. More than 200 people flowed through the lab Friday, and I never heard anyone wince. Although from the stories I heard while I shadowed Trish, Josh, and Joe that afternoon, there are people who wince—or worse. But confidence in your job and a clear sense of purpose makes even the most difficult situation bearable. I also learned from them that a robust sense of humor is a necessary job skill in this setting.

Trish and Josh collaborate over a patient’s lab order.

I hung out in the lab with Josh and Joe, who are phlebotomists by training, and Trish, who is a medical assistant but mainly works as a phlebotomist. A phlebotomist is trained to draw blood and prepare it for testing at a larger lab by spinning it down, for example, but as Josh demonstrated for me, they’ve learned to run several tests in their mini-lab such as tests for strep, flu, and pregnancy in addition to urine and stool testing. And that’s just a surface description of what their jobs entail. In fact, science, technology, and math permeate their day in more ways then I imagined.

What’s more, these STEM careers do not require a medical degree, or even a bachelor’s degree, yet they are full of science and technology. For example, the machinery used for running tests need to be understood and properly used, and the computer programs to track doctor/patient orders and results require careful attention to detail. Not only that, a full command of medical terminology is needed as well as an in-depth understanding of the science involved in the testing, a solid knowledge of veins (where they hide, how to find them, how to raise them up for a needle stick), the ability to problem solve, and of course a constant smile when working with patients. In addition, all the precautions you learned about in your high school science lab are in effect here too!

I find it very exciting to learn that such excellent jobs are available to young people who don’t wish to go to college but really enjoy the idea of working in a STEM setting. One book that I kept in my classroom library when I taught 6th grade, Blue Collar & Proud of It, clearly and effectively argues a case for blue collar (or non-college degree) jobs–including laboratory technicians! I made it a practice to balance my encouragement to all students by telling them “yes, you can” and pointing out all of the avenues they could take to fulfill their goals and dreams. Many students of mine gained encouragement about their future just by reading the introduction to this book and then flipping through the chapters. Click here for a book synopsis.

So much medical terminology is used in a lab!
Here’s a sampling of some of the words and codes that I didn’t understand!

Today’s job shadowing lent a perfect example of this. When asked what it takes to become a phlebotomist, Josh explained that he learned his trade in eight weeks. Of course, after his training he needed to correctly perform 100 blood draws in a hospital setting and pass a state exam before he could be hired. After that, he landed in an interesting scientific job with reasonable pay and no 4-year college loans to pay off. He clearly enjoys his job and even gave me my first lessons in urine and stool sample testing, which is where I began to realize the amount of terminology one must know in this job, and the amount of care one must take to not tip over “the pee!” Clearly, scientific terminology isn’t always used in a lab setting.

Best invention for a phlebotomy lab! A vacutainer tubes holder!
Best invention for a phlebotomy lab! A vacutainer tubes holder!

In between patients, Joe loved taking me around the lab to point out and explain various advancements in technology in a phlebotomy lab setting. For example, the tubes in which blood is collected are now vacuum tubes, making blood draws easier and safer. “Tech is super cool,” he said as he explained the scientific reasons for the gel in some of the tubes. The spinning machines cause the plasma to separate from the blood, he continued, “and look at these cool clips! Necessity breeds invention!” He pointed at clips that hold the tubes as blood is drawn and explained how before the clip, finding a safe, non-rolling surface for the tubes was not fun.

Colorfully coded, the tubes await their next blood sample.
Colorfully coded, the tubes await their next blood sample.

Trish, who holds a medical assistant license, chose to work at Johnson City Internal Medicine several years ago because it was an established medical practice that had “room for growth,” she said.  It’s a great job, she declared in all honesty, but like all jobs, it can be stressful at times. Some days, patients seem to come in and out of her chair as if on a conveyor belt – no time for a smoothie in the break room! Other days can be a challenge when multiple patients are hard sticks—phlebotomy lingo for “difficult to draw blood.” Patients newly released from hospitals tend to be dehydrated, which can make it difficult to raise a vein. Similarly, patients undergoing chemotherapy can have hard-to-find veins. Elderly folks, through the natural process of aging, tend to have thin skin and weakened blood vessels, making it difficult to draw blood. Even when faced with a hard stick, Trish calmly soothes and encourages the patient. I observed many interactions between her and her patients and knew—even without being the one to get the stick—that she was good at her job.

Separating blood and plasma is one job of this spinner.
Separating blood and plasma is one job of this spinner.

Nurses, carriers, and patients moved in and out of the lab all day. The place bustled with small talk and science talk, laughter and stillness, greetings and joking, the pop of Nitrile gloves going on clean hands and the whirring of the blood spinning machines. Maybe this is a place where the STEM generation is meeting its purpose which is, as researcher Allan Zollman says, “to resolve (1) societal needs for new technological and scientific advances…and (3) personal needs to become a fulfilled, productive, knowledgeable citizen” (Zollman, 2012).


Zollman, A. (2012). Learning for STEM Literacy: STEM Literacy for Learning. School Science and Mathematics, 12-19. 

Philly Codefest

by Caden Martz, guest writer

My name is Caden, and I’m a sophomore at Penn State majoring in Information Sciences & Technology (IST). The track I’m currently on has some overlap with computer science, but it is much less theory-focused. I recently attended my first hackathon, and Elly asked me to write a bit about the experience. 

The spring semester was drawing to a close, and I, having no immediate plans for what to do next, started looking for something that might help me improve my technical skills. I found an announcement for Philly Codefest, an overnight hackathon hosted by Drexel University in Philadelphia, and made a last-minute decision to pack up my laptop and go. The objective was to assemble a team of up to five people and create some kind of application (like a website, smartphone app, or computer game) using your combined skills, all while bouncing ideas around and hopefully learning from each other. The theme of the event was economic inequality in Philly, and each team’s project had to try to address this in some way. I texted some friends at Drexel beforehand, but none of them knew anyone who was attending the event, so I just had to walk in and get myself on a team somehow. After wandering around Drexel’s athletic center for a good 10 minutes, I bumped into some students also looking for the hackathon, and we eventually found our way to the (strangely unmarked) check-in area. The event was held in a basketball gym with tables and chairs set up every few feet:

Philly Codefest
Philly Codefest

It began around 10AM on Saturday and project work ended at 11AM Sunday, followed by a judging and wrap-up period that would last until 4PM. I should mention that admission was completely free, and included five meals, various workshops throughout the day, wifi and charging strips for our devices, a break room with ping pong tables and several arcade cabinets, and a continuous stream of snacks and drinks. This lavish treatment was provided by the sponsors, including Google, Comcast, Vanguard, and others. 

I walked in and made my way to the designated team-building room. I stood there awkwardly for a few seconds until a kind organizer pulled me over and gave me the rundown on teams that still needed members. After I inserted myself into the conversation, one team agreed to work with me (for some reason). My teammates included a Drexel computer science student, a guy in his late 20s who had recently finished an MBA, and another Drexel student majoring in something else. All of us were self-described beginners, and we didn’t have a very clear plan for what to make. Some of us (including me) knew the Python programming language, others knew Swift, JavaScript or just bits and pieces of things. It was clear that our individual strengths would not work particularly well together. For example, Swift is only used to develop iPhone apps, and Python can do basically anything except that. We plopped down at a table, opened our laptops, and started trying to fill in some of these knowledge gaps. On the other hand, my team had some good ideas about what our project should be. Our initial idea was to build some kind of website and database for grocery stores and food banks. The grocery stores would log into our system and select food items from their inventory that were about to be pitched. The food bank could then see this information and send someone to the store with the most food to pick up. The system would presumably facilitate other communication between the store and the charity as well. I had the most fun during this early period. We spent a lot of time just messing around and throwing different ideas at the wall. We also stopped by the sponsor’s tables to pick up free laundry bags, sunglasses, laptop stickers and various other knickknacks. 

As the hours went by, we became more focused on refining our idea and started writing down some plans. Unfortunately, one team member abruptly decided to leave because he felt he wasn’t being much help. I was a bit taken aback, and I wanted to reassure him that we were all newbies and probably all feeling the same way. From then on, our idea went downhill pretty fast. At one point in the afternoon, a different team member suggested we merge with another team some of his friends were on, and adopt a different idea. We did so, and began trying to help them with a life-simulation style game that would teach players how to manage money. Financial literacy was one issue that fell under the theme of the event, and a cash prize would be awarded to the team that best managed to address this. The two guys already on the team we had just joined had been writing the game in Python, so I could follow what they were doing. They were using a library called PyGamethough, which I had never used. I spent the next few hours digging through the documentation for PyGame whilst also trying to keep up with all the code my new teammates were writing. 

Throughout the day, I left my table to attend some of the workshops being given by the sponsors. Google held one on how to use their cloudcomputing platform to host our projects, Comcast held an information session, and Vanguard held a brief personal branding workshop. I found these sessions to be only moderately useful, but they were a good reprieve from the main activity. Students who had not yet learned about the job searching process probably benefitted more. I did enjoy all the free (somewhat silly) stuff Google was giving out. Their representatives were all very recent hires, and looked like they could’ve been my age. My slightly more experienced teammates kept plugging away at the game into the evening. They were able to get a character onto the screen and make him move around against different backdrops. Unfortunately, they hit a wall with the code and we couldn’t quite manage to improve it beyond that. By this time most of the sponsors had left, along with the staff form Drexel’s college of computing, to return the next day and judge our projects. Only a couple of night audits and security guards remained. I had some fun, and I made a little bit of progress, but in the end my team and I decided to throw in the towel. Around midnight the last of us left the event, and I walked to my friend’s apartment to crash. I checked out the winning projectsthe next day, and marveled that they had been churned out in such a short amount of time.

Overall, I’m glad I decided to participate. Although we didn’t make it to the judging period, it definitely set me up to know what to expect in future hackathons. What follows are a few suggestions I have for someone who is thinking about going to one of these things: It’s a very good idea to come up with a team and idea beforehand. Ask around and see who knows the same technologies you do. Only a small minority of the teams formed the day of the event, and their skills may not have matched up super well. It also helps to have someone more experienced on your side from the start. Philly Codefest was advertised as requiring no programming experience: “just bring your creativity!” This is very misleading, in my opinion. I wouldn’t have understood anything that was going on if I didn’t already have one basic programming class under my belt. 

“So is this like a guy thing you’re going to?”

Caden’s sister

On a final note, I would like to speak to the issues Elly is addressing on her blog. I can only speak for myself, but I definitely think there is a perception that this kind of activity is for boys. Before I left to drive into the city, my sister asked me, “So is this like a guy thing you’re going to? Or will there be girls there?” I responded that it was coed, but there would probably be a disproportionate number of guys. The male/female ratio ended up being about 5/1. Silicon Valley is notorious for being male-dominated, and I don’t have to search very far to find horror stories about women who quit their tech jobs because they don’t feel heard or listened to. In addition, it feels like every week when I check Ars Technica, there’s yet another story about Facebook doing something stupid, unethical, or downright illegal. These corporations have access to the biggest treasure troves of valuable personal data the world has ever seen, and it is rapidly becoming apparent that some can’t handle this responsibility. I wonder if Silicon Valley’s problems are connected to its culture. I think getting more people with a wider variety of opinions, experiences and perspectives into the field can only help. Oh, and it might also be a good idea to require a shower break halfway through a hackathon. 😊

To Answer Your Question

My current professor at ETSU, Dr. Nivens, asked this in response to this blog: How do you think educators can help level the playing field for both males and females in regards to STEM professions?

Well, first off, if I knew, and if I told you, and if I shared what I knew with all educators and policy makers in our country, would my advice be taken and system-wide changes made–even if it was well-grounded in scientific evidence, or even anecdotal evidence? Truly, many people have great ideas about how to accomplish this, and collectively, their message is strong. But the way our world works today, it seems important messages get lost in the deluge of Internet information, conferences and workshops, professional development, and even conversations over coffee. Even if the message is received, change is difficult because it not only happens through rules and policies on the grand level, but through internal, personal change such as stopping stereotypical thinking. So change will come slowly, at a grassroots level, or through little blogs like mine, or when one or two brave teachers set a new example in their school and are encouraged and supported, or when parents offer more than just baby dolls to their little girls. Maybe the change will come when students begin to understand what they’re not getting in school and rally for change–or maybe their parents will notice and storm school board meetings. However and whenever, it is a slow process.

I’m not trying to be sarcastic. I’m absolutely sincere in my response. I think many great ideas and examples circulate in the world of education. In the pursuit of a STEM certificate at ETSU, I’ve been introduced to amazing books and works of scholarship that hold the answers. I’m currently enjoying TED Talks that relate to educational revolutions, and not reform, mind you. (See my TED Talk summary/critique by tabbing over on the menu bar to “TED Talks” and scroll down until you find the first Sir Robinson video to learn more about the revolution idea.) These things hold many answers, but they do not cause change.

I also think that equity is being worked on at many different levels right now. For example, the #metoo movement opened up conversations about male dominance in general. Recognized female celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey often discuss issues of equity. It’s also about social justice, which is something Melinda Gates sinks her heart into. Influence can come from surprising places. When we bring equity and social justice into our culture as the norm and rid the workplace, social places, and homes of stereotyping, then students will easily adopt an equity mindset, so to speak, as it will be a natural assumption on their part and their teachers’ part. This is asking a lot of humankind, though, as it means people all over need to find it in their hearts to see all people as equal, doesn’t it?

The more exposure people get to positive ideas, the more likely they are to change. Yet how many educators have enough down time to soak in inspirational TED talks, or read Oprah’s magazine “O?” In my years of being a classroom teacher, I aimed for that 40-hours workweek club but never got below 60 hours per week. I was lucky to squeeze in a movie with my spouse or a phone call or chat session with any of my seven children.

Many people I talk to in the education world know things have to change–education must not be based on the factory model any longer. Many administrators and school districts are on the technology bandwagon, and my most recent school, Indian Trail Intermediate School in Johnson City, TN, briefly considered becoming a STEM-designated school but lost its momentum when a key person in that endeavor (or shall I say dream?) left for a new position. I also think most people will agree that educators and parents play a crucial role in raising up girls who believe they can succeed in STEM classes. Yet statistically, the change is happening at a snail’s pace.

So the question was, how do you think educators can help level the playing field for both males and females in regards to STEM professions? The bigger question, to me, is what will it take to bring about changes in thinking to eradicate negative stereotypes, racism, hatred, and so on? It’s very philosophical indeed. Change comes one person at a time, doesn’t it? So let’s begin with the youngest of all and teach them as parents and educators to see the value and potential of everyone. Let’s eradicate gender-typified toys and offer up similar play tools and explorations to boys and girls alike. Let’s change our speech to reflect the equity that we’ve come to believe in…and so much more. Wow. This is huge, isn’t it?

Moment of Lift

I had the pleasure of listening to Melinda Gates last week as she talked about her new book, The Moment of Lift, (Flatiron Books, April 23, 2019) at the Philadelphia Free Library. Author John Green interviewed her, using his sense of humor to lighten the serious nature of Melinda’s message. Topics included marriage, empowering females around the globe–especially in places with extreme poverty such as India and many African nations–increasing STEM education in schools, and drawing more females toward STEM careers. Everything she said resonated with me, yet I wish she had spent more time talking about education since that is my passion. I do know that the Gates Foundation does so much for education, but the stories this night had a different focus altogether.

How will you commit to the lift? #MomentofLift

What really stuck with me was her advice to listen carefully when offering help. When she traveled to villages in remote places to see that children were immunized, she often heard women ask, “but what about my health?” They would point out to her that while it was super nice to save their children with immunizations, what about their next child, and the next, and then the toll upon their own health and the high risk of death from childbirth, among other things? It took years for her to really listen, to really hear that message, Melinda admitted, in part because it rubbed against her Catholic beliefs about birth control. Truthfully, she and Bill had used birth control, she said, so she began to awaken to the pleas for help she kept hearing from women in developing countries. Eventually, not only did she realize that too many women (and girls) were dying during childbirth, she also realized that giving women power over their reproductive health solved many societal problems. Now, providing family planning education and contraceptives to women is an important mission for Melinda.

She gave a second example of listening carefully when she visited another remote village with one set of intentions for assisting its development only to discover–through listening to the community members–that nothing could be fixed until wife beating stopped. So, even though that wasn’t initially on her agenda, it became the primary focus for assisting that community. One solution village men agreed upon was that when they heard a man in a neighboring hut beating his wife, they would go there to stop it. Eventually the small village healed from its abusiveness, at which time other programs for its development could begin.

My daughter-in-law and I enjoyed seeing Melinda Gates and receiving a signed copy of her new book!

These are just two of the stories Melinda told at the Philly Free Library that night, and there are many more in her new book, The Moment of Lift. As soon as I return home from my Philadelphia trip, I will begin reading her book. Afterward, I will pass it to my husband to read upon her and John Green’s recommendation. They both agreed: If we are to create gender equity in our world, then both women and men need to hear these stories.

I left the library so inspired, and yet I wondered if gender equity, world peace, and so on, could be as easy as just improving our listening skills. Could the people of the world rise above hatred, injustice, racism, and divisiveness if we all just listened to each other better? What do you think? Do you plan on reading The Moment of Lift? Furthermore, how could listening carefully be used to help change the direction of American education? Who do we need to listen to? I’d love to hear your comments below.

You Can Do It Too

Are you looking for simple ways to introduce students to computer science? As a teacher, you can use Google’s free program (designed for grades 4 – 8) called CS First. It’s an easy way to engage your students with coding in just one hour (or, hey, go way beyond an hour with a 10-hour curriculum or even a coding club). The good news is that you don’t need to be a computer scientist to pull it off. In brief, CS First is a free web-based curriculum that exposes students to computer science by encouraging club members to tell a unique story each day using Scratch–an easy-to-learn, block-programming platform. Let’s check it out! Here’s an overview:

Students, Teachers, and Admins Talk

Video source CS First: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Now check out this post on ISTE: Google CS First ignites interest in computer science . You’ll have a great understanding of CS First after you read it!

Finally, here are some CS First highlights from its website:

  • Anyone can teach CS First
  • CS First provides everything you need
  • Appeal to students through theme-based projects (storytelling, art, game design, fashion, music and sound, sports)

The CS First activity outline:

  • Take a brief survey then watch a few videos that introduce you to CS First and Scratch, the programming platform.
  • Learn about computer science
  • choose a character
  • tell a story
  • use add-ons
  • reflect
  • wrap-up your story by sharing and showing your project

CS First Sample Activities:

My Story

CS First works great as an afterschool club, and an afternoon coding club is a great way to add STEM enrichment to students’ lives. Yet what about those kids who can’t attend after-school activities? With any luck, they’ll have a school that supports this type of learning during the school day. But before that becomes commonplace, districts, admins, teachers, and even parents need to understand why it is important to take time for these activities. Even once the understanding is there, the fear of how to integrate computer science into classrooms must be overcome. But its not really that difficult as I can attest to from personal experience.

My own story begins nearly thirty years ago. Ever since AOL offered a platform for it in the mid 1990s, I dabbled in website creation. My first website showcased family photos. The enjoyment grew as technology advanced, and I considered making websites my art and my hobby. Eventually, I created some serious sites for local businesses and non-profits in the early 2000s, but as websites became more complex and life took me in new directions, I stopped being a webmaster. Yet I never lost interest in all things Internet.

In 2010, I completed a post-baccalaureate program through the University of Alaska Fairbanks in elementary education and became a classroom teacher in 2011. I loved “technology” and always looked for ways to bring it into my second grade classroom. Genius Hour and Creativity Lab offered my students opportunities to explore electricity with Snap Circuits, and basic coding principles with Push-Button Programmable Robots. A book on paper airplanes let students build and test different models as they learned about aerodynamics and design. A few sets of K’Nex created future engineers as my 7- and 8-year-old students built bridges. Students also painted, created skits, learned to sew, or researched a favorite topic. Parents volunteered on Fridays during my labs and admired students’ abilities to think deeply and creatively at such a young age. I valued giving them these opportunities, and I learned right alongside all my students.

Seward Code Club began in 2013. Cofounders: Leigh Ray, Valarie Kingsland, & Amy Hankins

Knowing my interest in technology led Amy Hankins, a mother of a student in my school, to ask me to help her start a FIRST Lego League Robotics summer program using WeDo and Mindstorms technology. I had never done anything with Lego Robotics but wanted to give it a try. Our club was a hit! We had to limit the numbers of students we could have at a time and quickly filled up a waiting list in our small town of Seward, Alaska (pop. 3,000). We ran that for a couple years and then branched out to form the Seward Code Club. The club offered kids up to age 18 guidance in programming using codeacademy.com, Scratch, Lego Robotics, and more. Many kids got their STEM start in our club.

Seward Code Club’s original mission statement and more.

The next joint endeavor Amy and I undertook was bringing Lego Robotics to our elementary school! Luckily, students and teachers were familiar with coding because I had organized (forced upon the teachers!) the Hour of Code in its inaugural year (2013), which went very well based upon teacher and student comments afterward. That positive experience opened the door for the in-school robotics labs. We set up a schedule to allow teachers to sign up for WeDo Lego Robotics during the school day. Typically, a teacher would schedule 1.5 hours of time and enlist parent volunteers to help troubleshoot during the class.

With a robotics curriculum ongoing throughout the year and the annual Hour of Code, our little school was quite a leader in STEM education! I furthered STEM in our school when I won $10,000 worth of technology equipment for our school from Code.org. We bought a 3D printer, which I taught myself how to use before teaching students and other teachers. We bought two classroom sets of Chromebooks for our third graders. Teachers got web cameras and learned to connect with classrooms around the world. Some teachers got document cameras. That ten grand went a long way in helping our school, and I’m thankful for how it helped our students and our teachers get a STEM mindset.

That’s me holding the check with our principal, David Kingsland. The guy with the mic is our superintendent, Mr. Sean Dusek, and the lady in the back is Lynn Hohl from our school board.

For every year I taught at Seward Elementary School, our whole school participated in the Hour of Code. But all good stories must come to an end. I moved to Tennessee in 2017 and can only hope that parents and teachers kept the momentum going in Seward in one way or another. Sadly, all that’s left of the Seward Code Club now is a Symbaloo with some broken links. <<sad face>> But maybe they still teach the WeDo Lego Robotics curriculum in the school? (Note to self: Email former colleagues and find out!) No matter where they are with STEM education at Seward Elementary today, I am proud of how we made a difference in so many children’s lives for all the years I taught there (2011-2017).

Super important point!

So by now you’re thinking that you are not a code rockstar like me who wins money for school, runs clubs, does programming…wait! Who said I knew anything about programming or coding? I truly was no rockstar. I was just a teacher who felt strongly that kids needed hands-on dabbling with 21st century tools. The truth is that I knew some HTML at the start of my school initiatives, but that was it. Let me put it this way. When it all began, when we did the Hour of Code, when I began teaching Lego Robotics, when I co-founded the Seward Code Club, I knew absolutely nothing about anything else other than very basic HTML. That’s not a lot. But I moved forward despite my lack of knowledge because I had been sold on the importance of STEM and coding in our schools just through my awareness of the topic and my personal interest in technology. Moreover, I believed it was necessary to start with the youngest children to help them develop a permanent, pro-math, pro-science, pro-technology, pro-engineering mindset. So I wrangled our Kindergarten teachers into participating in the Hour of Code with their kiddos. And guess what? Afterward, the teachers thanked me. Not just the Kindergarten teachers — but all the teachers. They said their kiddos learned so much and even surprised them when some of the “low learners” performed impressively and got excited about learning!

It’s Important

Let me not forget to emphasize that this playfulness with technology at Seward Elementary School and the story I told you are to illustrate this important maxim: STEM education should not be optional in today’s schools. It should be a permanent, embedded way of educating today’s youth for tomorrow’s jobs. Google it. Study infographics. Ask kids. Ask business leaders in your local community. If you’re already sold, then dive in no matter what your role. Educators, parents and relatives, and business leaders all have important roles in motivating students, teachers, school boards, politicians, and philanthropists to support STEM education for all.

STEM for the Ages infographic

What’s your story? Readers would love to hear about your path as an educator, student, business person! Please leave your comments. Thanks!