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Wendy Wooten

Educator/FIRST Mentor
Chatsworth, California

What subjects and grades do you teach?

I currently teach 9th grade Physics, 11th/12th grade AP (Advanced Placement) Physics, and Robotics.

What subjects did you like best when you were a student?

I loved math and found science very interesting.

What subjects were most difficult for you? Were there any classes you did not like?

I was very fortunate to have outstanding teachers that made all of my classes exciting, interesting, and fun, so I enjoyed all of them.  My favorite classes were Math, Science, and Latin, but I guess there was not the same passion for English and Social Studies, although I was always eager to go to those classes.  I had a 7th grade English teacher that taught us everything there is to know about grammar, and it really helped me with the important skill of writing.  All of the things I learned in my Social Studies classes have come in handy when I watch the game show Jeopardy.

When did you decide you wanted to teach?

I didn't decide to become a teacher until I was in graduate school and supporting my education as a teaching fellow at UCLA.  I loved helping the students learn topics that I found so exciting and watching them become enthusiastic about their education.  I also enjoyed developing curriculum and trying to be creative with the material.

What aspects of teaching do you find most enjoyable?

Developing curriculum that is rigorous and at the same time exciting, challenging, and fun for the students is my favorite part of teaching.  It allows me to be creative and it is rewarding to watch the students respond to it.

What aspects of your job would you change, if you could?

The most frustrating part of teaching is dealing with administrators that don't have a vision, are afraid to let the teachers try something really innovative, or don't support the teachers' efforts.  It is also a burden to be unable to provide quality programs to students because there are no funds available through the school or the district.

What do you like best about teaching using robotics?  What are the hallmarks of a good robotics education program?

Project-based learning is much more effective than the traditional stand and deliver method for a number of reasons. The students learn the material better because they have a motivation -- solving the problems of the project challenge.  They not only learn math, science, and technology that are the basis of the project, but also build teamwork and communication skills. The students feel they are applying their efforts to a real-world situation, something analogous to what they might face in their future careers.  Most importantly, I am impressed at how it turns kids into self-learners.  What more as educators could we give them than that?  A good robotics program is rich in basic math, science, technology, and problem solving/critical thinking.  It introduces students to a variety of topics and skills, and motivates them to further expand and explore those topics and improve those skills.  It develops self-confidence in the students by empowering them to accomplish things they didn't think they were capable of doing.  When the students see their robot driving around, doing the tasks for which it was designed, others marveling at the sophistication of the machine they built, they are transformed into individuals that have a passion for learning, thinking, and being creative.  It is the most rewarding sight for an educator!

How do you see your students benefiting from learning through robotics?

The greatest benefit of the robotics program that I see in students is the development of enthusiasm for learning.  The kids are excited about designing and building a robot, and when you introduce them to the background information, they take it and literally run with it.  They want to learn more.  They can't get enough of it.  It really makes the job of teaching so much easier that sometimes I feel guilty!  When it gets to be 5 or 6 pm and you have to tell the kids that they can't stay in the classroom any longer to work on their project, you have to realize that something is right about the program.

Do you think it makes any changes in their plans and goals for the future?

In the past, I would have 1 or 2 students who wanted to go into engineering or manufacturing where they actually produce a physical product.  Now I have 10 to 20 kids each year that talk about inventing new machines or developing new technologies to solve some of our most challenging problems.  I see students more directed, with a stronger connection between what they have learned and how they can use it in their future.  The students seem to have developed a greater appreciation for their education as the means to reach career goals.

What is your doctorate in?

My PhD is in biological chemistry and physiology.  I studied the molecular basis of how mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell, are formed when metabolism is stimulated by thyroid hormone.  My postdoctoral work was on the biochemistry of flagellated parasites, such as trypanosomes, with kinetoplasts (mitochondrial DNA within the large mitochondrion of the cell).

Why did you choose to pursue a PhD?

I did research and pursued a PhD because of my strong curiosity to understand how things work and a sense of motivation to persevere in seeking the solutions/answers.

What types of students do you remember as the years go by?  Did any students inspire you to make changes in your teaching methodology?

The kids I remember most are the ones that underwent the greatest change -- the shy kid who became a team leader, the kid who was afraid of tools and then built an amazing robot component, the kid who didn't like school and is now going on to college, the bright student who wanted to be a lawyer and now wants to be an engineer, etc.  I tend to be very analytical, always evaluating what worked or didn't work and why.  The changes in my teaching methods that have resulted from this include a greater emphasis on project-based learning, more encouragement of student-led teaching and research, and more involvement with local industry for professional mentoring and internships.

What other activities do you enjoy?  Do you have enough time to pursue them?

My personal time is centered on family activities and events.  I am also active in Girl Scouts as a Gold Award advisor and assistant to a Senior troop leader.

Do you find that there is significant number of girls who stay away from careers in the science, math and technology fields?

I believe that more girls are career-oriented than in the past, but certainly not a majority.  Consequently there is a small rise in the number of girls that are interested in math/science/technology careers, but there is a need to actively recruit girls into these fields.  Most elementary school teachers are female English/history types rather than math/science types, so the girls do not have math/science/tech role models until middle or high school.  Exposure to successful women in math/science/tech careers and strong female math/science teachers will improve the perceptions which girls have about pursuing technical careers.

Do many girls participate in your robotics programs?

Nearly 1/3 of the students in my robotics program are female, and I know that their experiences have been effective in directing them into technical fields.

What differences do you see in the way girls and boys approach science, math and the practical applications of those subjects (e.g., engineering, computer programming, technology)?

The biggest difference between boys and girls in their approach to math/science and the application of these subjects is that girls tend to think first and then act, whereas boys tend to act first and think later.  Girls are more hesitant to jump in and manipulate, whereas boys want to play/experiment with things but not apply logical/inductive reasoning. Both would benefit by being a little more like the other.

What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of programs for girls only, boys only, and co-education?

I think that there are some advantages for kids on each type of team.  All-girls or all-boys teams allow kids to take on roles that they might not have on coed teams, and gives them the opportunity to build their confidence in those roles.  But I also think that coed teams have advantages in putting kids in a more real life situation and teaches them to work together.

During your course of study, did you ever feel like you were "competing" against the boys?

I never felt like I was competing against the boys -- the thought never crossed my mind.  I think the only time I felt like I had to compete against boys was when I went out for football at my elementary school and the coach told me that if I wanted to play, I would have to run faster and throw the football farther than all of the boys.  I did and was the quarterback of the team.  Little girls are almost always better athletes than little boys as they develop their coordination earlier.

What advice do you have for students (girls and boys) around the world?

Become passionate about something that you find exciting and believe has value, and then pursue it with all of your energy and dedication.

Is there any particular quote that you find inspirational?

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."

~ Albert Einstein

Wendy responds to questions

- 3 September 2002


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Last Updated:
3 September 2002

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