Last week the NYCDOE ran their first ever STEM Institute. It was a fairly large event; I want to say there was over 400 teachers and 30 presenters in attendance. I have no idea how accurate those numbers are, so don’t quote me, but they seem about right. The workshops were obviously focused on STEM disciplines, which are typically things such as applied math, robotics, computer science, environmental science, and the like.
What was intriguing most about the whole Institute was the fact that I was able help lead a workshop on bicycle mechanics. Yes, mechanics. (Thank you UBI.) My sessions focused on how bicycles and bicycle culture fit into the whole STEM arena. I teach both math and robotics, which are at the heart of STEM, so extending STEM to include bicycles, a huge passion of mine, is pretty exciting.
Bicycles aren’t something that people typically think of when they hear STEM. That is what made the experience so awesome. The whole thing felt like unchartered territory. I helped lead the way as 18 teachers got greasy, learned how to overhaul a bottom bracket, adjusted derailleurs, and then spent a few hours developing STEM lessons and curricula centered around bicycles. Some of the topics that the teachers researched included personal health and fitness, mass, acceleration, velocity, gear ratios, and how bicycles affect gentrification. I also found some great bicycle-themed resources that I shared with the group.
Huge props to Karen Overton and Recycle-a-Bicycle who essentially brought a bike shop to Stuyvesant High School for the three-day workshop.
It was an awesome experience. I got to merge my love for bicycles and bicycle mechanics with teaching, mathematics, and STEM. Plus, I meant some inspiring, like-minded teachers. It feels like the start of something bigger.
Following a passion of mine, two weeks ago I ventured to Portland, Oregon and attended United Bicycle Institute (UBI). I took their Professional Repair and Shop Operation course and learned a good deal about bicycle mechanics, but learned even more about myself and my students. Because of this course, I will never look at a bicycle the same again. At the same time, I’ll never look at my students the same way again either.
Let me provide a bit of background. The course, and school, is highly specialized. You don’t go there unless you have a undying love for the bicycle. The tuition is not cheap, but you pay for what you get: a world-class education. They are only one of two schools that do what they do. People travel from all over the world to go to UBI. Out of the 19 people in my cohort, there were two students from China and two from Chile. The bicycle mechanic certification United Bicycle provides is recognized by most bicycle shops as a prerequisite for employment as a mechanic. In other words, if you want to learn about bikes, you come here.
With all that being said, I went into my two-week professional repair course with limited knowledge about bicycle mechanics and virtually no background in the field. I’m a high school math teacher. I mean, I do minor work on my own bikes, but that’s it. There were folks in the class not only with far more bike mechanical knowledge than I, but also much more hands on experience with regards to bicycle repair. Many of the people in the class were already bicycle mechanics, they just needed to be UBI “certified.”
I say all this to say the course was very challenging for me. Let’s get real. Simply put, I struggled.
I really didn’t expect to struggle with some of the concepts like I did. Before the course, all the wrenching I did on my bikes was fairly straightforward. When I enrolled in the course I said to myself, “Okay, you’ll learn some new things about bikes and you’ll apply them pretty smoothly.” My expectations were met with a cold, hard reality. I found myself falling behind the rest of the class and I got frustrated because I couldn’t keep up. I worked slower and needed extra time to process almost all of the procedures. Everyone else seemed to breeze through it all. I worked through breaks and after class to catch up. Despite my extra effort, I still felt like I wasn’t on the same playing field as everyone else. I constantly asked for help from the instructors and peers. On several occasions, I wondered wether I would ever “get it.” I also found myself questioning whether I even belonged in the class…I was obviously not as skilled as most of the other students.
In the midst of all my frustration, there was a instant moment of clarity. Being over 3,000 miles away from my classroom and taking a class that on the surface had nothing to do with my career, it struck me hard. I realized that my deep-rooted, I-want-to-quit frustration was what some of my own students experience on a daily basis.
I knew, in that moment, I would forever view my struggling students differently. Reflecting on my eight years of teaching in New York City, in that instant I suddenly understood that I never truly knew. I never knew what it felt like to struggle to the point of giving up. I never understood how it felt to be the one always falling behind. I never understood how it felt to have the course material flying by at the speed of light and barely being able to grasp the concepts, if at all.
Now I understand. As I sit here, I’m wondering how I taught for so long without knowing this. I’ve always been faced with challenges, but somehow the obstacles I faced at UBI were more personal than all the others. This is why they hit me harder and stand out like they do. In my classroom, I always tried to be sympathetic with my struggling students in years past. I always tried to do whatever I could to help them succeed. But its different now. I literally know how they feel. I can now relate to them in a profound way. That fact alone trumps many other teaching strategies I could employ in my attempt to reach them.
Despite my struggles during the course, by the end I felt much more confident in my ability to diagnose and repair a bicycle. After the culminating exam on the last day of class yesterday, I actually feel confident that I have earned UBI certification as a professional bicycle mechanic [UPDATE: I did receive certification!] Although, as important as my personal growth is, I know that I have a responsibility now to instill such confidence in my struggling students. They too can learn to persevere and battle through frustration. So, just as my ability to repair a bicycle has been enhanced, so has my confidence in aiding my students to use failure as feedback.
I don’t think one of the goals of United Bicycle Institute is to positively impact the students at a small public high school Brooklyn, but they did. I must give a huge amount of credit to the instructors at UBI Portland. Rich, Craig, Dan and Steve were amazingly patient, incredibly competent, and endlessly helpful. They were upmost professionals who wanted everyone in the class to succeed no matter their ability level. They did a masterful job. I learned a great deal from their approach that I will certainly take back to my own classroom. My students thank you guys in advance.