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Teacher Spotlight: STEM Prep’s Daniel Lieu on removing racial barriers to STEM careers for his students, balancing rigor with caring and sharing snacks

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | February 5, 2020

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This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Daniel Lieu

Daniel Lieu is just 22 years old but he’s already certain that he chose the right profession as a STEAM teacher, serving mainly low-income minority students in South Los Angeles. He believes race or ethnicity should not be a determinant for whether students become engineers or scientists. Lieu thinks what they need is to be exposed to STEAM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics —experiences early on in life and in school.

Lieu is in his second year teaching at Math and Science College Preparatory, a charter high school that is part of the STEM Prep Schools, where he teaches engineering to juniors and seniors using project-based learning..

“I think project-based, is really where you learn more because it’s challenging to a different level. You have to problem-solve, you have to be creative, you have to work around solutions and that’s what is important in the real world. So it’s super important.”

Lieu learned to love the teaching profession from his mom, who was a public school teacher in Lawndale, where he also attended charters schools. He said that he grew up watching his mom enjoying her job. While in college he initially planned to go to medical school, but decided instead to pursue teaching and ended up graduating from UC Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in biology and his teaching credential.

“Because of the STEM teachers shortage, there’s a lot of programs where you can actually do a bachelor’s and a teaching credential so I was in a program called the Cal Teach,” he said. “I began to realize that this is actually what I wanted to do because I saw how happy my mom was as a teacher, just coming home and I was like, ‘I want a job that is satisfying in the sense that I get to help people and I also enjoy what I do.’”

At STEM Prep, over 80 percent of the student population is Latino.

A recent study found that though black and Latino students show a strong interest in pursuing a STEM degree, they drop out of college programs at a higher rate than their white peers. One reason highlighted by the researchers is that low-income families have less access to STEM academic resources.

Lieu thinks that’s very much what happens in communities like those where his students are growing up. But he also strongly believes those statistics can change.

“I think it really depends on how much exposure they have because growing up they may not have exposure to professionals or family members who are in STEM,” he said. “I do definitely see that they want to be the future STEM professionals and they have to know that they can be … telling them that they can is the first step.”

LA School Report asked Lieu about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as his goals for the 2019-20 school year. His answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why did you choose to teach in this community?

The purpose of why I wanted to be a teacher was to really, whatever job I went to, I just wanted to make a difference in somebody else’s life because I know personally, that’s what brings me joy. If I could have that satisfaction, then I know that whatever job I’m in, I’d be happy. I grew up with a lot of friends who are from low-income environments and I saw what they had to overcome and how the teachers helped them overcome it, and I wanted to be a part of that motivation and that change for other people. So I chose a community where it was close to home and also in a population that I felt would bring me that satisfaction of knowing that I am making a change in the world.

How important is innovation in your teaching in order to have positive student outcomes?

I think the school highlights innovation in the sense that they want this school to be training the future STEM professionals. So my lessons are very engaging in that they’re hands-on, so how much … if they’re doing circuits, so it’s very hands-on in the things that prepare them and show them that they can be an engineer. I think innovation is important in the classroom to show students that they can do things of the future and that require creativity. You have to bring creativity into your lessons. … I always ask myself the question, ‘How can I show them that they can be engineers and scientists?” A lot of that requires innovation through my lessons.

Teaching overwhelmingly Latino students at your school, how do you support their interest in STEM careers?

To be honest, I think anybody can be into STEM regardless of what race, what ethnicity they are. I think it really depends on how much exposure they have because growing up they may not have exposure to professionals or family members who are in STEM. I’m going back to those statistics. They may not see these and because of that, they may not see themselves as STEM thinkers. They may not see that they can be engineers and scientists, so I think that in education, there’s huge importance in showing them that they can. In my lessons, I incorporate a lot of that, and if you look at my classroom, they’re really engaged.

So they’re all very into the circuits, into building it, and at this school, I think that the push of ‘you can be a scientist, you can be an engineer’ is hopefully encouraging that idea in these students.

What do you think your school’s leadership is doing right in setting up teachers for success?

I think the support because we’re a small school and because we’re a small school, I think that we have access to a lot of people and resources. There’s a lot of coaching, so observations happen very often. We’re constantly observed or we’re constantly evaluated in the sense that we’re not judged, but we know that they want to make us better educators. So it just doesn’t feel like judging. It feels like the school wants to push us to be better teachers for our students. I think that’s the greatest strength. The coaching model at this school and the supports that you get. I think I’ve grown a lot because of that. They record you and it’s not like, ‘Look at what you did.’ It’s a, ‘OK, so how can we grow from this?’

What do you think the school district or the state can do differently to bring more teachers into the profession and particularly into STEM?

I think one thing that I’ve noticed is that STEM can be inclusive, but I think that STEM extends beyond just the science, technology, engineering, math. I think all the other subjects are important because a part of STEM is knowing how to understand texts. Part of STEM is knowing how to write, how to read, how to be creative, and that’s in the arts. So I think that bringing other subjects and highlighting them as important aspects of STEM too can help.

I think at a district level and even a state level, they’re pushing STEM a lot and that’s important. STEM is extremely important for the future and I think that’s also important to highlight the arts and the humanities because that is a critical support to STEM.

What do you think parents can do to help STEM teachers better?

I think to support their student because part of the student’s growth is from the teachers, from the school and the parents, so it’s teamwork. It’s a team effort between the parents, us and the student, so we have to work well together. I think understanding the student, working with them to improve, so that could be through asking them how their school day was. I think that plays a big role in the student’s interest in school, too. The participation of the parents for us — the more that we communicate with the parent, the more that we can understand the student. The more that the student communicates with their parent about school, the more they may be pushed toward talking about, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ It’s like, have you tried going to, let’s say, the California Science Center right down the street (to find) resources and support.

What’s been one of your greatest accomplishments so far?

I think that they all fall under the theme of … character development, like TV shows, The Office, Friends, all of these sitcoms have good character development. So, I like to see when my students go from either really shy or reserved and eventually they start opening up inside the classroom and that’s when I know that I’ve created an environment that’s open. I feel like this year I’ve created that more, created that space where I’ve seen students go from quiet to participating and talking to other people. I think just seeing the character development in the classroom of my kids. I’m glad that there’s a space for them to feel like they can be confident in themselves.

What’s one of your main goals for this school year?

This year my goal is to learn how to balance teaching with also spending enough time to care for my students because I think sometimes you can teach, but you forget to care for the students. I have this power struggle where sometimes I’ve cared a lot for my teaching — wondering, I am pushing enough content or pushing enough rigor — but sometimes I feel like I can be too rigorous and then forget to care as much for my students. So I want to balance that. How can I care for them a lot and also push them with a lot of rigor, how can I be both? We just had professional development on how to love your students and that was super applicable to my goal this year.

What did you learn from it?

That students have different love languages just like how we have different love languages, understanding each of my student’s love language. So for example, something that was brought up by the person leading the development was, if they offer you a snack that might be their way of opening up to you. I’m used to just saying no, it’s OK just all the time, but I’m realizing that’s their way of showing love to me. So, I’ve started taking it and I’ve seen their face light up because now they feel love because I took their gift. And the same way, if I know that they like snacks, I can offer them back as well.

I think that there’s a shift and like they’re more likely to participate in class and try to put a lot of effort into an assignment when they know that I care about them because they know that I’m not out to get them, or I’m out to get them to fail. I want them to do better and they know that. I think because of that, I’ve seen results in that they’re coming to my office hours to get tutored, more open to seeking help. I allow them to retake assessments mainly because I don’t believe the first one should dictate where you are. So if they understand the content a month later, it took them an extra month, but they understand the content. I’ve seen them take tests that are a month out, so a month later they’re still trying to learn stuff that they didn’t do well on the first time and their test scores improved a lot because of that. A lot of them went from a 1out of 4 — t’s a 1 through 4 grading system — in a matter of months just coming, seeking more tutoring help and things like that. When you give them the opportunity to try and improve, they definitely improve.

As a former charter student and now as a charter school teacher, from your own experience, what would you like people to know about charters schools?

I think one big thing for me is knowing that the goal of every teacher — public, charter, private — is that we all want to see students improve. … I feel like sometimes with the political climate and just the thoughts that revolve around the word charter, we forget that teachers want to see students improve and students want to improve. Yes, there’s a whole political argument over it and it’s important to discuss, but it’s also important to know that we are here for our students.

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