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In addition to her innovative classroom work, Guilford resident Stephanie Johnson (far left, holding award) is one of two coaches for The Country School’s competitive robotics program. She’s shown here at the 2018 fall regional First Lego League Robotics Tournament, where her team qualified once again for the state championship, and Johnson was named Best Mentor. Now, Johnson has been named a Women of Innovation finalist by the Connecticut Technology Council. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Johnson )
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Well before most educators were talking about STEM learning, Stephanie Johnson was learning to teach with a new educational approach, “constructivist teaching.”
“It was kind of a precursor to the emphasis on STEM and the maker movement, and also to what we do at the Country School, which is STEAM,” says Stephanie, who teaches science at The Country School in Madison. “We integrate a lot of subjects, so kids deep dive into their learning and can pull from their art skills, from their math brains, and their science brains and not have to learn in isolation.”
While STEM learning puts the emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math; STEAM learning is an approach inviting dialogue, critical thinking and innovative implementation of ideas linking science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. As a result, it creates experiential learning across the disciplines.
At The Country School, Stephanie, a Guilford resident, has led STEAM education for teachers and was instrumental in helping develop and introduce the school’s STEAM curriculum in 2011.
She also coaches the school’s robotics team—recently taking it to the state championship tournament—and has helped to dramatically increase the number of girls in the program. Last fall, she was awarded “Best Mentor” at the First Lego League competition. She’s also admired by her colleagues as a teacher who’s inspired female graduates to pursue studies and careers in robotics, engineering, and coding.
Now, Stephanie has been named one of 50 Women of Innovation finalists who will be recognized at the 15th annual Women of Innovation awards program, sponsored by the non-profit Connecticut Technology Council (CTC).
According to a CTC press release, “the program seeks to celebrate and create a growing network of women in the trenches of STEM. Finalists are the scientists, researchers, academics, manufacturers, student leaders, entrepreneurs, and technicians who create tomorrow’s advancements through their efforts in Connecticut today,”
Finalists will be recognized at an awards gala at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville on Wednesday, March 27.
Stephanie says she’s humbled by the honor, but notes her talented colleagues and other women in many other areas of STEM and beyond are just as deserving.
“My whole take on a lot of this is that there’s so many people that do so many interesting and innovative things, and we all need to support each other,” says Stephanie. “I work with so many amazingly accomplished and talented people who support me in so many ways. I’m thrilled, I’m honored, but I’m also thinking, ‘How about the person at the next desk—why me?’”
Just one such person is her science/STEAM teacher colleague Dr. Amy Cornell, who has joined her in serving as a mentor and role model for all students participating in The Country School’s robotics program.
However, if being recognized as part of a group of accomplished women will help to inspire girls and young women to foray into the world of STEM, Stephanie is delighted to help open that door.
“The more we can get these opportunities out there, and the more visible we can be about what is available, and what people are trying to do, the better,” says Stephanie. “We want young girls and young women to see other women doing things, and seeing an idea of what’s out there, and imagining themselves doing those things.”
The Building Blocks of Teaching
About three decades ago, Stephanie imagined herself becoming an innovative teacher, even as she was succeeding in a highly competitive field that was dominated, at the time, by men: working on Wall Street.
“I worked on Wall Street for a couple years out of college, and was thinking about law school, and I decided that my love was really in teaching,” says Stephanie. “I grew up in a family of teachers—my parents were both teachers—and I had headed off to college thinking, ‘Oh, boy, the stresses of a teacher income—I might want to try something different.’ But I realized pretty quickly I had a passion for it.”
Stephanie, who had earned her B.A. in international relations and economics from Brown University, went back to school to earn her M.S. in education from The Center for Constructivist Teaching at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU).
“The premise of the center was young children learn best through the hands-on experiences and through constructing their own meaning out of experiences,” says Stephanie of the now-retired SCSU program. “So that was really sort of where my background in STEM up to STEAM came from, this constructivist movement at Southern.”
While she was in the part-time program from about 1990 to ‘93, Stephanie wanted to begin working with a school district. She and her husband, a Guilford native, had recently moved to town and she found employment with Guilford Public Schools.
“I wasn’t yet certified to teach, but I knew I wanted to work in a school,” says Stephanie. “I was a college athlete, so I also wanted to get my feet in the door with coaching options. So I worked in the library at Guilford High School, and I coached volleyball and helped with the track team and I subbed. I just sort of helped out wherever I could while I was getting my degree.”
To immerse themselves in the community even more, Stephanie and her husband also volunteered to coach in the Guilford Youth Basketball League.
“It was kind of a great way to get to know people and the community,” says Stephanie.
Stephanie took her first teaching job in a kindergarten classroom at non-profit Leila Day school in New Haven, then took a couple of years off to start a family. She credits her kids with bringing her to The Country School.
“My kids ended up here, and I ended up here with them. They’ve grown up and moved on, but I’m still here!” says Stephanie, who started teaching at the school in 2005.
Stephanie says the past 14 years of teaching have flown by, while the excitement she feels about coming to school every day has only increased.
“You have to be in a mindset that everything is evolving constantly. That’s what’s so great about teaching at this school,” she says. “There are different parameters we work with than you have at other schools. We have a little more flexibility. So in terms of designing curriculum, nothing has to look the same year after year. We like to draw from the experiences of our colleagues and also our community.”
Stephanie is thrilled to be a part of The Country School’s latest opportunity for students, a $50,000 gift to establish the Rothberg Catalyzer. According to information from the school, the gift from school parents and Guilford residents Drs. Jonathan and Bonnie Rothberg was inspired by Stephanie’s work with the robotics program and other STEAM initiatives she champions at the school.
Head of School John Fixx said he feels fortunate to be serving at a time when Stephanie is giving herself to her students with “such inspiring devotion.”
“Just by her example, Stephanie elevates the potential of all students—and especially girls, perhaps—to pursue careers and professions that involve the sciences, engineering, robotics, and all the components of STEAM. One of the marks of an excellent teacher, like Stephanie, is that she makes her surrounding colleagues better teachers, as well,” said Fixx.
Stephanie is excited for all of her colleagues and the students who will benefit from the Rothberg Catalyzer. She notes The Country School will be the first elementary-through-middle school to establish the program. Rothberg Catalyzer programs are already in place at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, and Choate Rosemary Hall.
“It will allow us some amazing opportunities to add to what we’re trying to do, specifically around coding, engineering, and robotics, which are the three prongs of [the catalyst] priorities,” says Stephanie. “It’s going to allow us to take that next step. We have a chance to forge new ground in this realm, at this age level. We’re very excited about this partnership.”
As a Women of Innovation finalist in the Secondary Academic Innovation and Leadership category, Stephanie is now in the running to be named the winner of her category. On March 27, in addition to honoring the 50 finalists, CTC will announce winners in 12 categories including high school students, college students, teachers, entrepreneurs, leaders at small and large companies, and more.
But for Stephanie, the best reward is continuing to inspire her students, especially young women, to know they can succeed in STEM. According to information shared by The Country School, the National Science Foundation finds only 24 percent of jobs in technical or STEM fields are held by women, but women make up 46 percent of the total workforce. Stephanie agrees with those experts who feel one way to get more girls involved is to introduce them to fun, STEM-related activities, such as robotics, at an early age.
“It’s so important at this age, the early middle school years through middle school, to get the girls into STEM studies—and then, keep them interested,” Stephanie says.
Connecticut Technology Council presents the Women of Innovation Awards on Wednesday, March 27, 5 p.m. at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville with keynote speaker, business leader and Connecticut First Lady Annie Lamont and emcee News 8 anchor and reporter Jocelyn Maminta. For tickets and more information, visit www.CT.org.