Taking the First Step – Colorado Strategic Planning Institute

 "The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are." -- J.P. Morgan

Hello, my name is Tami McDonald. I am the Colorado Regional Coordinator for the Smithsonian Science Education Center LASER program. As a near native of Colorado, I am proud to be promoting inquiry science and excellent professional development locally. I believe the need to prepare our students to compete in an innovation-based economy is great. If kids are excited about science, technology, engineering, and math, their chances of solving future global problems increases.

My love of science started at a young age with parents who taught me to explore. Each summer, our family would pack up our camper and embark on a journey discovering national parks and enjoying adventures along the way. Growing up in Salida, Colorado, my teachers supported and encouraged my curiosity. After years of working in a variety of industries, I took a huge step and returned to school. Inspired to make a difference for children, I became a teacher.

Prior to joining SSEC, I spent eight years teaching elementary and middle school students in both urban and rural settings. In those years, I found myself using science as a springboard for teaching math, reading, and writing. My passion for science education inspired me to obtain a STEM Certificate through the NASA Endeavor Teaching Certificate Project. I continued my education, receiving a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction with a STEM Emphasis. As a life-long learner, I sought out additional professional development opportunities. Each of these learning opportunities challenged me to be a better educator. Now, as a member of the SSEC staff, I am proud to be a part of supporting science education through the LASER program.


The Snowmastadon at Denver Museum of Nature & Science seemed to be joining us in taking the first step.

The week of June 22-26, I had the privilege of attending the 2015 Colorado LASER K-8 Science Education Institute for Leadership Development and Strategic Planning. As a "newbie" to the SSEC team, I arrived wide-eyed and full of wonder at the events planned for the week. Our location at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science provided a scenic landscape of the downtown skyline with the Rocky Mountains in the background.

Leadership teams represent a cross-section of each school and community. Teams, potentially consisting of teachers, administrators, district-level leadership, and community members, each looked slightly different.  Spending time with a diverse group of leadership teams planning to reform science education brings an excitement that is contagious. Participants were quickly engaged in the "Change Game," mimicking real-life scenarios while attempting to create change in a make-believe school district. This game set the stage for leadership teams to progress through a series of sessions and activities. Each was intended to guide them in designing a strategic plan.

Tavelli Elementary School working hard to succeed in the Change Game.

Faculty presenters from across the nation provided inspiration and direction as leadership teams developed a mission and vision for their schools and districts. In a methodical manner, teams were introduced to goal setting and encouraged to consider objectives and activities to meet those goals. Each goal was based around the five pillars of the LASER model: curriculum, professional development, materials support, administrative and community support, and assessment.

Conrad Ball Middle School's Joey Angstman and Tavelli Elementary School's Kyle Deck build new partnerships between schools.

Throughout the week, teams collaborated between schools, districts, and community partners. Thursday proved to be one of the most active days as teams were split up for field trips. Participants toured the Denver Water Treatment Plant, GeoTech Environmental Equipment, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Each site introduced opportunities to build relationships with community partners and gain knowledge of STEM occupations. Leadership teams learned about "real-world" occupations while making connections to their students' learning in the classrooms. 

Thursday evening, community partners and leadership teams were invited to celebrate the schools' accomplishments of the past year. Views from the Anschutz Family Terrace atop the Denver Museum of Nature & Science provided an ideal background for a night of celebration. 

On our final day, creativity flourished when teams presented a synopsis of their final plans. Brain breaks, skits, and hopscotch were just a few delivery methods. Leadership teams were challenged to describe three things that will have a great impact on their school, two potential challenges and possible solutions, and one thing they will complete as soon as they return to school.

Wayne Strickland, Strategic Planning Institute Facilitator, participates in the hopscotch presentation.

When I reflect on the Strategic Planning Institute, I am impressed by the teams who dedicated a week of their summer to transform science education in their schools. As an educator and a new member of the SSEC team, I am excited for the plans these teams developed . Their attitude and understanding of the work ahead of them is inspiring. Each team now has a strategic plan and is committed to taking the first step toward implementing change in their school.

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About the Author

Tamara McDonald

Tami McDonald is the Colorado Regional Coordinator at the SSEC.  Her office is located at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.  Her main responsibilities include:  1) building awareness for science education among leaders, 2) helping develop science education leadership among groups from school districts and states, 3) conducting professional development programs to support the professional growth of teachers, and 4) developing and disseminating information about exemplary science instructional materials.