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Winner of 'Oscar' for teaching talks spuds, STEM and the secret to motivating kids

A Buffalo teacher who inspired students to create an experiment for the International Space Station looks to pump up fellow educators next month during his keynote speech at the 2018 WNY STEAM Conference.

"The biggest thing we deal with in Buffalo Public Schools is behavior," Andrew Franz said. "I'm not perfect as a teacher but I've found that on my most engaging days, I have no behavioral problems."

Franz, a Hamburg native, taught middle school students during the past four years at Hamlin Park Academy. Three of those students were among winners of a national competition who had the chance to send an experiment into space in 2016. The students looked to discover if space travel impacted the ability of potatoes to grow.

Franz has since become known in the district as "The Science Guy," even though he holds SUNY Buffalo State degrees in English education and special education. Last school year, he received a Milken Educator Award, described as the "Oscars of Teaching."

He will start a new job teaching science at International Preparatory School in September, but not before he gives the keynote talk at noon Aug. 6 at the two-day conference – focused on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

The WNY STEM Hub – devoted to advancing science, technology, engineering, and math learning and workforce development – organized the conference at Daemen College in Amherst in collaboration with the Education Collaborative of Western New York. It will include sessions led by K-12 teachers, college and university professors, and STEAM industry professionals. Those interested in learning more and registering should visit wnystem.org.

Q: What will you talk about at the conference?

"Our job as educators is to look at the future, figure out what's going to happen and prepare our kids for that," secondary education teacher Andrew Franz says. (Photo courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation)

I've been formulating a philosophy called PEAT. PEAT makes kids grow. It's about passionate, engaging, authentic teaching. It doesn't matter what kind of teacher you are, you are an educator. If you focus on being passionate, finding the kids' passion, being engaging, making things fun and authentic, making them real, you are going to get better results in your classroom than just showing up every day and reading from a book and a curriculum. …

We have to be careful in special education because we can't think, "I'm a science teacher, I'm a social studies teacher, and all I teach is science and social studies." You have to be an educator. An educator looks to teach an entire student. I need to make sure this student not only knows their science facts but also has the skills to work with other human beings. That they're able to read and write at a higher level that when they came to me, to make them more employable. I need to make sure I know a student well enough to know their interests and steer them in a way to whatever is going to come next, whether that be vocational school, a four-year college or getting into the workforce right away.

Q: What kinds of students have you had in the classroom?

With the new high school class, I'm not sure yet, but I've been dealing with students with learning disabilities, emotional disabilities. In a self-contained classroom, the biggest challenges were oppositional defiance disorder, just listening. We have to be aware of this as special educators. We can't just get up and lecture for 45 minutes.

Q: Why STEAM and STEM for you?

It lends itself very well to what I want to do. I want to get my kids overly engaged. I want to make them passionate about what they're doing, so that the disability seems less important than them having fun and doing their work.

Somewhere along the way, we think school isn't supposed to be fun, that you're supposed to listen to your teacher, do what you're supposed to do. If my kids aren't having fun, then I'm not doing the job. If they're not having fun, they're not going to remember anything that I say or anything that they do. That's really what STEAM education does for our kids. It gives them hands-on activities. It gets them out of the classroom.

One of the first field trips we've taken each year has been going out on a free charter fishing trip. We've gone to Tifft Nature Preserve. We went to Cazenovia Park to pick mushrooms one year. These are the kinds of things I'm trying to marry when it comes to STEAM education and special education. It's a hand-in-hand fit.

Hamlin Park's 'spud launcher' teacher surprised by national award

Q: So everyone can benefit from learning science?

When people think STEAM or STEM education, they think you're going to become an engineer, you're going to go work for NASA. I am working to make those things more accessible to my students. It could be, "I'm going to work for the Department of Environmental Conservation." It's not a job we sometimes see as a STEM/STEAM job but it is. Or "I'm going as a laborer to put solar panels on somebody's roof." That requires a good amount of expertise in a STEM field and, if you don't have it, you're not able to do that – yet our kids absolutely could do that and could flourish doing that. There should be more alternative energy jobs in the future.

Our job as educators is to look at the future, figure out what's going to happen and prepare our kids for that. STEAM education is a way of tapping into that.

Q: What are educators going to need in the next few years in terms of help from government and society?

What we need doesn't change. We need money. We need support from the community. What has opened my mind working with the WNY STEM Hub is people in the community do want to help us. They want to steer us in the right direction because they have the answers. They know what we need. For example, in the next five years, there's going to be 20,000 vacant computer science jobs in this state alone because we won't have enough people qualified to take them. If I take that information and teach my students computer science in my classroom, and maybe get five of them a year to become interested enough to go and get that degree, then we're starting to take kids who are in poverty and give them an advantage because they have computer science experience at a younger age. These jobs are just waiting for them to take.

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