By Patrice Johnson
In 1957 when Russia launched its Sputnik satellite, images from space sent shock waves across the world. Fear of Russian control of the final frontier chilled Americans to their bones and roused the nation’s competitive spirit. Within a year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and NASA soon grew to spearhead the US space program. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy raised the ante, challenging the nation to land the first human on the moon. Innovations from the space race ushered in a string of innovations during the ’70s and ’80s: Hello to cell phones and permanent artificial hearts. Hello to the first Space Shuttle launch and the personal computer. Then came the ’90s, and the National Science Foundation coined the acronym STEM, based on the idea of educating students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Fast-forward to 2018, and an observer will see a fair-haired woman teaching an interdisciplinary program called STEAM—STEM with a capital A because it includes art. Here in Michelle Burke’s classroom at Smith Elementary School, teams of early elementary students are learning how to make a cloud rain and writing code with Scratch Jr. One day they may construct spaghetti towers that hold marshmallows, and the next they may outline their hands and bones with crayons on paper, using Q-tips to fill in the spaces with cooking oil and holding them to the light for what appears to be an x-ray. Around the holidays, they use a chemical reaction to construct Christmas ornaments, of course. Using STEAM, Burke sets the stage for each kindergartner and each first and second grader to learn critical thinking skills and to experience eureka moments.
According to Smith Elementary Principal Brad Edwards, the program is working. “When Mrs. Burke took over the STEM classroom last year, she really created a sense of purpose and direction for the program. She has such a wide range of teaching skills and knowledge of all core areas, including music, art, and technology. She uses that knowledge and unique skills when she teaches STEAM to make her projects more meaningful and relevant across all curricular areas. By doing this, students have expanded their learning from their core classroom and can apply them beyond the walls of the school to their own lives.”
Burke explained that she immerses her students in real-world ideas and teaches them to solve real-life problems. “My STEAM classroom focuses on blending project-based learning and the design process with activities I plan for instruction,” she said. “I often present students with a set of materials and a goal with parameters. It is up to them to work collaboratively in planning a solution, trying their ideas, identifying problems and making adjustments as needed to reach their goal.”
Colleague Angie Filice and Burke were recently selected to present at the 2017 miGoogle conference in Fenton. “We shared a few of our projects that we developed for teachers of elementary students using Google products in their classrooms,” Burke said.
Not long ago, Burke was awarded a grant to purchase eight Dash robots and their operating devices. The Star-Wars-like Dash robots respond to voice, navigate objects, dance, and sing. “These will enhance the K-12 coding and robotics programs.” Burke smiled.
Born to parents Paul and Dorothy of Conklin and Ferndale, Michigan, respectively, Burke grew up in Farmington where she met, married Don Burke in 1987, and taught kindergarten and second grade for six years before coming to Stockbridge. She attended Western Michigan University for two years and earned her teaching degree at Eastern. At EMU, she completed a master’s degree in early childhood education in 2000, the year she accepted a teaching position with Little Stars preschool at Stockbridge Schools. Burke taught first grade, second, and kindergarten prior to launching Smith’s special STEAM class.
Cindy Lance, a school board member whose son, Isaac, has attended Burke’s class, praised the teacher as caring and dedicated. “She embraces new ideas, technology and challenges each child to success,” Lance said. “Her recent ownership of the STEAM offerings at the lower elementary is just another example of her commitment to educate and inspire our youth.”
Together, Michelle and Don Burke have raised daughter Briana and son Don. Both children went off to college and now pursue careers in the sciences. “My daughter married her high school sweetheart, Sam, in 2013.” Burke grinned with pride. “They recently became parents to a beautiful baby girl, Madelyn, just this past June.”
What led horse-riding, dog-loving Burke to become a teacher? Well, she credits her aunt, uncles and father for their involvement in education. Her grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse, she said. “I suppose,” she added, “it would be cliché to say that I chose a career in education because I wanted to have a positive impact in the lives of children and their futures, even though it is true.” Burke also wanted to provide for her own children and be home with them as much as possible. “Being a teacher meant I could find a balance between a career and family,” she noted.
Burke indicated she felt as if she had lived in Stockbridge all along. “When I was first hired,” she said, “I remember meeting many teachers and parents who grew up here and still are here, having raised their families. Their children are staying here and raising their families. It means a lot to have that feeling of belonging and know that what you’re doing is valued and recognized by the people who take the most pride in seeing what this community is all about.”
Burke, a S.T.A.R. Award recipient for making a difference in Stockbridge Schools, attributed her most memorable moments to when students learn how to read. “When a child suddenly realizes that he or she can truly say what’s on the page of a book, and it clicks, you see that look of amazement in their eyes and that knowing expression of I can really do this! It’s magical.”
Burke emphasized that she shares her greatest accomplishment with most early elementary teachers. “When 20 to 30 students walk through your door each day, you are presented with the challenge of providing the best educational experience for them.” Students differ, she said, in family dynamics, learning styles, emotional needs, health, and cognitive development, “yet we are able to devote ourselves to identifying what we need to do to help each of them discover their talents, skills, strengths and value as little human beings who can do anything. We teach them how to count, read, hold a pencil, write stories, make friends, clean up and look out for one another. It truly is the place where we are laying the educational foundation for the rest of their lives.”
Her advice to students? “Work together,” she declared. “Help one another. Collaborate. Celebrate.”
If travelers could leap across the space-time continuum into the future, they might meet the scientist to first make fusion energy safe or to perfect an interplanetary carbon ladder. Perhaps they would hear this scientist reminisce about a warm-hearted, awe-inspiring teacher who first nurtured his or her love of science, technology, engineering, art and math.