Engineer, Physics Teacher, and Quadruple 'Hoo Matt Shields on the Art of Student-Led Teaching

Matt_Williams_UVA.jpgMatt Shields' path to becoming a teacher was not quite traditional.

A Virginia native, Matt attended UVA to earn both his bachelor's and master's in mechanical and aerospace engineering. But after working as an engineer, then a web developer, he realized his true calling: education. Matt earned his second master's and a Ph.D. from the Curry School of Education before landing at Charlottesville High School, where he's been teaching physics — and transforming STEM education — for the past nine years.

It all started with the Best All-Around Club of Nerds (a.k.a. BACON), which grew, almost by accident, from a single science fair project into a club made up of more than 100 students who travel around the world competing in international STEM competitions — often beating out prestigious technology schools and engineering academies. Now, Matt has turned that momentum into a full five-year engineering curriculum. This spring, the first cohort of 12 students will graduate having taken four full years of engineering.

At a time when students have the bulk of human knowledge at their fingertips, and many teachers are struggling to define their new role in the classroom, Matt is thriving. We sat down with him to talk about what why teacher education matters, the future of STEM classes, and why teachers need to forget about being experts.

How did you decide to go from being an engineer to being a teacher?

It was a pretty circuitous route. At the tail end of grad school, I started thinking that engineering wasn't going to be my long-term career path, so I started poking around at other ideas.

At first I taught myself web development, and I tried doing that for a while. At one point I was thinking about starting a company to teach web development skills to adults, and I think that's when I realized I might want to pursue teaching. Looking back, the roots were always there. Even that first year working right out of college, I was volunteering at a local high school coaching cross country.
So one day on my lunch break, I walked into Monticello High School and said, "Hey, do you guys need any teachers?" I just kind of jumped into it.

Between your four degrees in two different subjects and also teaching yourself web development in the middle there, it seems like you're naturally a pretty curious person. Do you think your own curiosity and love of learning is a part of what drew you to teaching?

Definitely. I love learning, and I love it when other people love learning, so the idea of passing on that love of learning to someone else has always been a motivator.

When you teach a subject, a lot of times that's the first time you really get it. I taught calculus in my first year, so I had to go back and brush up on calculus — and, maybe for the first time, really understand it. Since I became a teacher, I've moved around enough in my content that I'm always learning.

I don't think there's much about the world that isn't fun to investigate. One of the things I tell my students a lot is that understanding the world enriches your experience in it. Knowing what's happening in a rainbow just makes it even cooler.

Once you went to Curry to get your teaching degree, you had already been in the classroom for a few years. How did your time at Curry help you become a better teacher?

I spent most of those three years at Curry taking notes about what I was going to do when I got back in the classroom. I was pretty excited to try out the new ideas that I developed during that time. I really enjoyed how it made me reflect on my own teaching. Three years is long enough to definitely develop habits — including some bad habits. I spent three years teaching and three years reflecting on that, then I was able to hit the reset button.

I also enjoyed debating with my classmates about big questions like, "Is there a canon? Should everyone read Shakespeare? Is homework valuable?" I think a teacher should have a big picture idea of their own philosophy of education.

But the practicum side is also hugely important, and that's something I think Curry gets. Teachers are practitioners. You don't send a surgeon into surgery saying, "Well, you've taken a bunch of tests and you got A's" It's important to practice, and to practice alongside a mentor — somebody who's helping you hone your craft. A lot of it is the mechanics of learning how to speak clearly and grade clearly, but it's also about developing your own technique and presence. Every teacher has to go through that.

Let's talk about BACON the after-school math and science club you started, which has gotten a lot of buzz. What do you think has made BACON such a success?

There's a certain freedom that's built into the DNA of the club. Early on, in its second or third year, a girl walked in one day and said, "I heard this was the club where you can do whatever you want." She wanted to bake. I said, "Sure, you can do that here." So she would come in after class and baked, and she loved it. Eventually she started getting into some other stuff that BACON was doing, too.

BACON has a president every year, and usually about a dozen sub-groups that each has a leader. There's a Science Bowl lead, a Science Olympiad lead, a project lead — and each of these sub-groups runs itself. There's also a whole logistics team and a media team, too.

I think it's successful because kids have interests and energy that need a creative outlet. Sitting and memorizing chemistry equations or going through algebra worksheets — that's not a creative outlet. Whether they're interested in robotics or baking, it gives them the time and resources to pursue their interests.

They also end up developing skills that they wouldn't develop elsewhere. When they're applying to colleges, lots of kids can say they got straight A's in high school. But I have a student who can say she took the reins and handled a $60,000 budget. And one who can say, "Here's a robot I made..." I even have a student right now who's making his own rocket fuel! It's just a place where kids can develop skills — teamwork, problem-solving, long-term planning — that they're probably not getting anywhere else.

So how did BACON turn into the full five-year engineering curriculum that you've developed at CHS?

About four years ago, the success of the BACON club led the school board and the principal and the superintendent to approach me and ask, "What are the chances that could be a curriculum?"  So, at the end of the school year, I asked each one of my physics classes, "If you could invent a class, what would you want to learn?" I wrote down all of their answers on a white board, then I sat down with a couple of the BACON kids and we started from that list. Ultimately, it was just me working with four or five students and building what would eventually become the engineering curriculum at CHS.

For the last three years, it's been completely kid-driven. They drew a floor plan of what they wanted the space to look like, they met with some architects, and we built a new lab. Now I have a five-year engineering curriculum that's pretty much built around what kids want to learn.

The program has grown, and I will have over 200 students in the program altogether. This spring, I will have my first cohort of 12 students who will graduate having taking engineering for all four years of high school.

What do you hope that your engineering students gain from the program?

In a broad sense, my goals for the engineering program are at least threefold. First, I want their engineering experience to be the most powerful opportunity they get to synthesize their high school learning, including math, science and writing. Second, I want the program to enforce soft skills, including problem solving, planning, teamwork, documentation, and presentation, at a level not often encountered in high school. And finally, I want to give students, whether headed to MIT or into the workforce, useful skills such as computer programming, electronics, and computer-aided design (CAD).

What do you think is the future of STEM education?

In education right now, "STEM" is definitely a buzzword. But these concepts have been around for ages. Newton was doing science in the 1600s. Galileo was a technologist. Roman aqueduct builders were engineers.

In my mind, what's happening now is that education is finally realizing the potential for modern technology—and by modern, I mean technology that is now 20 years old—to transform how we do education. I think we can be taking advantage of ubiquitous, low-cost, high-powered, internet-connected, portable computing to transform just about anything we do in education. So, the future of “STEM” education is just using these technological developments to update old methods and make sure that our students are literate in the latest tools and ideas.

Why is the student-driven approach such an important part of your teaching style?

My philosophy of "how" I teach is built around the fact that I give kids freedom to poke around.

I've been on this constant progression of teaching myself to let the kids' interests drive the conversation. I think that's hard for the teacher, because you want to be the expert in the room. But every kid has a phone in their pocket. If they're interested in something, they've probably already watched a YouTube video about it. Our job is to help them as they investigate things that they're interested in. It's about stepping back and taking the approach of, "let's see how I can facilitate."

Teachers used to be the source of information. Now, the floodgates are open, and our job is to filter and make sense of all that information, rather than give it. That's a hard transition to make. But either teachers are out of a job, or they have to learn how to transition. Being a good gardener isn't about providing nutrients — it's about pulling out weeds and occasionally watering.