High school teacher Aaron Vanderwerff was recognized on Tuesday for the development of an inventive science program that has helped transform the lives of young students at Lighthouse Community Charter School, in Oakland.
Vanderwerff was one of 100 educators chosen by ING US to receive a $2,000 award for creating a groundbreaking learning curriculum, plus an additional $5,000 for placing third in the program.
“Mr. V,” as his students refer to him, has taught Chemistry, Physics, and Robotics at Lighthouse for five years. Nearly 300 students attended the ceremony celebrating Vanderwerff, who received his award through ING’s Unsung Heroes program.
“I was excited to be among the 100 educators just because it means that people are understanding that this is really something that can affect and impact kids,” said Vanderwerff. “When I found out that we got the bigger grant, I think it really meant that people see this as not just a good thing, but that they see this as innovative and really pushing the envelope for where kids can go.”
Vanderwerff’s pioneering 9 – 12 learning program, known as the “Creativity Lab”, focuses on teaching students to apply STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) skills to solve real-world problems, like programming an electronic circuit.
The Lab teaches students to use conventional hand and power tools, as well as computer-aided technology software, to design parts and test the mechanical aspects of their projects, like motors and sensors.
Vanderwerff hopes that the program will make students more likely to become scientists and engineers when they grow up.
“We are looking for schools in Oakland that are interested in collaborating with us,” Vanderwerff said. “Especially for our student population, which tends to be underrepresented in science and engineering, I think it is really important to give them as many opportunities as we can.”
Vanderwerff’s idea for his “Creativity Lab” originated from a meeting he attended four years ago at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. At the meeting he came across a program called Young Makers, created by the same folks that put on Maker Faire – an all-ages event that gathers tech enthusiasts, crafters, engineers, artists, and students together in one place to showcase new creations and to share ideas.
Vanderwerff decided to sign up his classes for the program and from there worked with students to develop ideas that they could actually build.
Edward Crandall, a ninth grade science teacher at Lighthouse Community Charter School, describes Vanderwerff’s learning program as a Fab Lab or Fabrication Lab, where every kid can go to dream and make their vision a reality.
“For me, Vanderwerff’s program is like returning to the days of shop but with more high-tech equipment,” Crandall said noting that Vanderwerff has built relationships over the last several years with scientists at Stanford, the Clorox Co. and the Exploratorium. “He doesn’t have just one iron in the fire,” Crandall added. “He has five or six.”