Debrief: For STEM warrior Havasy, it’s personal

Ray Ann of hope: Ray Ann Havasy, founder and director of the Rockville Centre-based Center for Science Teaching and Learning, has high hopes for STEM education on Long Island.

Don’t get Ray Ann Havasy started about STEM. Actually, please do – the founder and director of the Center for Science Teaching and Learning is more than happy to dish on the benefits of STEM education (for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the importance of engaging young minds way before high school. That’s one of the two main components of the Rockville Centre-based CSTL, which launched in 2000 first as a continuing-education effort for teachers; the other, of course, is all about introducing kids to innovation, through New York’s only STEM-focused nursery school and a host of seasonal and school-related efforts. For Havasy, a product of Port Washington public schools who earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate (biology education) at Columbia University, it’s a personal science-literacy mission that speaks directly to Long Island’s socioeconomic future. Her view from the Tanglewood Preserve:      

For starters: We actually launched first in Suffolk County, in Central Islip. But we met with then-(Nassau) County Executive Tom Suozzi, who was pivotal in developing this public-private partnership. We moved to the Tanglewood Preserve (in 2002), which was in real disarray, and raised almost a million dollars in funding for renovations.

Laying it out: There were three buildings – the main building (about 3,000 square feet), the classroom (about 1,000 square feet) and the cottage (roughly 1,500 square feet). There are about 12 acres total and we put trails throughout, and the county got a federal government grant to redo the ponds.

Go team: We have 10 full-time (staffers) and about 18 part-timers, though in the summer that grows a bit because of our Summer Science Camp. Most of us have a background in education, and there are those of us who are a combination – for instance, I was both a scientist and an educator.

Mentoring matters: It was my biology teacher in junior high school, Joe Coppola, who recognized my love of science. I later had the great honor of teaching alongside him, the person who really inspired me to become a scientist.

Wild life: I actually started as a research scientist. I worked as a zoologist at a place called Wildcliff in New Rochelle. I looked after the animals we had there – we had a lynx, lots of snakes, dear, skunk, rabbits, a pretty good selection – and entertained the kids who came to visit. That’s how I turned to education.

On the path: I really enjoyed working with the kids, so I ended up getting my doctorate in biology education and teaching at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington. I moved from there to teaching at NYIT, and I found that a lot of the teachers who were coming in for [continuing education] just weren’t science-focused. So, the Center for Science Teaching and Learning originally started as an organization to help teachers, then moved toward a more all-ages organization when we came to Tanglewood.

Teaching teachers: We still do a lot of teacher training. Elementary teachers definitely want to learn more about STEM, but upper-level teachers are looking to learn more about teaching STEM with hands-on approaches. Our methodology is about project-based learning – how do we get teachers away from the front of the classroom and into a more student-direct teaching methodology?

Why is that important? It’s not important, it’s critical. Research clearly shows that the more input kids have into the learning process – we call it “voice and choice” – the more they maintain and the more they can apply it.

Got to hand it to them: We really look at ways to develop programs that give students that voice and choice. Instead of us lecturing them, we ask them to innovate. We ask them to develop solutions. People fear that if they don’t tell students something, they won’t learn it – we say that if we design a great lesson or a great project, the kids will learn by doing, by conducting experiments and solving problems.

Case in point: There was a good example in Michigan, where a group of teachers that I taught [assigned] a predator-prey project to their high school kids. Instead of lecturing them, they challenged students to make a decision about whether wolf-hunting should be allowed. In the process of reaching their decision, they had to learn about predator-prey relationships and discover what the wolves preyed on. As a result of that project, the students made a presentation in front of the State Legislature – a lifelong lesson they will remember forever.

Clean living: I’m especially pleased with this year’s Clean-Tech Competition, which included students from 39 countries. The kids were challenged to innovate solutions to climate change and they came up with some amazing things.

World tour: That (competition) really shows how we have turned into a global STEM organization. We do programs locally, of course, and nationally, to a large extent, and internationally, including the Clean-Tech Competition and a lot of teacher training throughout the world.

Support system: We have some great corporations behind us, such as Spellman HV Electronics, the sponsor of the Clean-Tech Competition. Companies really get it – they understand they need to support STEM activities for students younger than college, younger than high school, if we’re going to feed that workforce pipeline.

Wish granted: We received a regional economic-development grant this year from New York State for $570,000. We’re using it to open up to eight community-based STEM learning centers, including one in Franklin Square, one at the West Hempstead Public Library … we’re doing it in Brentwood and Southampton, too. The way we see it, if we’re going to change the number of kids who major in STEM, there has to be a community understanding of the importance of STEM.

The next “big” thing? Dinosaurs! We’ll be opening our new dinosaur exhibit, probably the beginning of next year. We built a fourth building with the help of some great sponsors, including Nassau County, WAC Lighting and PSEG, and the dinosaurs are in the house. They’re life-sized and beautiful – some are skeletal, some are “fleshed out” and some are robotic. We just need to create the exhibits around them.

Crisis point: The last time they gave the [IEA’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science] exam in 2015, they surveyed students about their career intentions. Seventy-three percent of kids from Singapore mentioned a STEM career. Seventy-one percent from India. In the United States? Eight percent. Although we’re not quite feeling it yet, we’re entering a crisis mode from the lack of qualified people to do the STEM-related R&D needed to keep our economy clicking.

Talk is cheap: I know there’s been some discussion about making Long Island a “STEM Island,” but I’m not quite sure we’ve germinated an actual plan. I would love to see a STEM innovation summit, where we pull together everyone – educators and government and companies – and sit down and say, “If we’re going to be known for STEM, what will that look like on Long Island … and how will be get the support we need to make this innovation happen?”

Interview by Gregory Zeller

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