Teacher Education

Building the Best STEM Educators with Dr. Anni Reinking

Building the Best STEM Educators with Dr. Anni Reinking

STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. Elementary teachers have the responsibility to incorporate a STEM curriculum into their classrooms, but integration can be difficult. 

For some insight and ideas on how to integrate STEM into your classroom, I interviewed Dr. Anni Reinking. Anni has conducted research about how STEM curriculum can influence brain development in early childhood. I know you’ll enjoy her insights, so let’s jump right into our conversation.

Introducing Dr. Anni Reinking

Dr. Anni Reinking, welcome to The Teacher Education Podcast. How are you? (00:57)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Good, how are you?

I’m doing well, thank you for asking. So Anni, you taught preschool, kindergarten, second and early childhood special education. What led you to pursue a career in teacher preparation? (01:10)

Dr. Anni Reinking: So I started my journey in education through an organization called Teach for America. And so when I was trained in Teach for America, which was many, many years ago, in 2007. I got a lot of information on behavior management, and how to kind of run a classroom. But I realized that at the time that I went through the training, the methodology wasn’t there, and I didn’t have an undergraduate education. In education, my undergraduate was psychology.

So when I graduated, I kind of knew that I wanted to work with kids, I knew that I wanted to do something with around learning. And so I decided to go overseas and teach for a little bit, and then when I came back, I realized I wanted to do Teach for America. And then after realizing kind of that missing link for me, I decided to go into higher ed. That is one of the reasons I went to higher ed, but also because I am able to reach more students in higher ed. So I’m able to not just hit the 20 students in my classroom, but I’m able to hit 20 undergraduate students who will then have 20 students with them. And so it’s that being able to hit more.

Amplifying your effect to those around you. (02:25)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Correct. Yes.

So you’re an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. For those that aren’t familiar with your university, can you tell us a little bit about it? (02:36)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Yeah, so we are a state university, we are one of the state universities and we’re located 20 minutes outside of St. Louis, but on the Illinois side. And we are kind of a medium-sized state school. We offer many, many different programs within many different colleges on our University. And the department that I’m in is education. And so early childhood education, we do cohorts. And so every year we bring in a cohort of 30. So we’re not teaching any more than 60 because our program is two years long. So they spend two years getting their general education courses and then they’ll come into our program for their junior and senior year. And so we always have a really great set of students who really get to know each other and really get to kind of have that bond.

Preparing Teacher Candidates for Diversity Within the Classroom

And for you and your program, what is the most daunting challenge that you face? (03:28)

Dr. Anni Reinking: So there are a lot of challenges facing college students today, especially teacher educators, people who are going to go into the teaching profession. And so some of the things that we see is the need for financial support during their college years. Now outside of kind of that financial stability, there are other changing demographics of schools. So, nationally preschoolers are kind of the first-ish generation where it’s a majority-minority, which means that if you walk into preschool classrooms across the United States, that you will see more black and brown faces than you would white faces. And so being able to help, especially our rural teachers who have never had any diversity in their life, understand that they will be working with a more diverse population than maybe what they grew up with. And so really preparing students for that diversity within the classroom.

And so I really base a lot of our trainings and our teachings on brain development, understanding, especially within the last 10-ish years, a lot of brain development science has come into the world of education, not necessarily what’s developmentally appropriate, but really based in trauma-informed practices, and the idea of stress, toxic stress and trauma, and what that means to brain health. And so we bring a lot of that in when we are doing courses, it’s kind of embedded. But then I also have one whole course, that focuses specifically on how to build those relationships, because relationships are the key to working with all types of families. Because we’re seeing a lot more trauma in rural areas, mostly impacted at least in Illinois, from the opioid crisis, from poverty, and so we’re seeing some more traumatic experiences in children’s lives and then diversity. So being able to really understand what a diverse classroom looks like, having books in the classroom, having lesson plans that don’t just have a heteronormative or a Eurocentric view, but how do you kind of add in voices to those lessons?

What are the most common needs that you’re seeing for these younger children? (05:42)

Dr. Anni Reinking: So, a lot of what we’re seeing is the idea of knowing where they’re gonna go at night, and the idea that they’re gonna have that safety net, and understanding that they have a place to be, they have food, they know that there’s the consistency of food. And so it’s really around the idea of safety. So, in early childhood classes, you really wanna teach on our undergraduate students that, children crave structure, even if it’s kind of what I like to call controlled chaos, there’s still a structure to it.

And so, when there’s no structure kind of outside the walls of the school, we can provide that in the classroom, still making sure that they’re engaging in play, and they’re engaging in social, emotional learning and all of those. But, really having like we know what’s gonna happen, we know we’re gonna have food, we know we’re gonna have nap time, we are gonna have the kind of those positive interactions within the classroom.

The Challenges of Integrating STEM Curriculum Into Elementary Settings

Okay. Kind of switching gears here. Another thing that I was, I was actually really impressed with all that you’ve been able to publish in the past few years. It sounds like you’ve had a pretty short career, but you’ve done quite a bit. I saw that you have done a lot with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curriculum—STEM. And from the general public point of view, it seems like there’s this growing anxiety about STEM, right? Are we doing it right? Is it actually improving? And as someone that’s extensively researched and published about STEM, what do you think is the largest challenge for integrating STEM curriculum into elementary settings? (07:13)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Fear. So I think that a lot of it is that educators who are currently in classrooms may not have had science experiences in their childhood that mirror what we’re kind of aiming for in science and STEM classrooms today. Unless they have a really extensive science background. And so, I think a lot of it is just getting outside of our own comfort zones as teachers. And one thing that I tell my students, and then when I do professional development, is just to take one thing. So STEM is pretty overwhelming, but just take one thing that you are going to focus on and that you are going to become an expert in, so that next, you can focus on something else. Now that doesn’t mean that you completely ignore everything, but it kind of breaks it down so that it seems manageable. It’s goal setting, essentially. So let’s break it down into these little sub-categories so that we can reach that end goal of really integrating quality STEM within elementary classrooms.

"We need to get outside of our own comfort zones as teachers." —Dr. Anni Reinking Share on X

What STEM Should Look Like

How should STEM look in an elementary classroom? Cause I’m thinking back to my days in elementary school and I don’t think I even did the volcano. You know, so what should it look like? (08:59)

Dr. Anni Reinking: It should be controlled chaos and hands-on. Children should be asking questions and experimenting and finding the answer to their own question. They should be discovering. They should be getting their hands dirty. It should all be inquiry-based, which essentially means either I as the teacher facilitate asking questions or you ask a question, and then I provide you kind of just the resources. Like here are the things I have, how are you gonna discover the solution essentially?

And that is really not how my science class was really, but having kind of that room where students can be creative, students can question, students can fail. I think that’s one of the biggest things that we are seeing with undergraduate students who were in school, kind of a lot during the No Child Left Behind. They have been tested and tested and tested, and they always want the right answer, that we’re hoping to change their mindsets to say there’s not a right answer. There’s just not. Go and explore. Figure out what your right answer is. Tell me why you think that’s the right answer. And so, for us as professors, it’s helping the future teachers understand that we don’t have to give them a worksheet or a test with a right answer. We want to engage in discovery. And that’s really kind of how I try to get it across to teachers and undergrads.

Girls’ Interest in STEM Fields

I like that. And as part of your research into STEM, and this is a little self-indulgent because I’m particularly curious about this. But you’re currently studying how STEM afterschool programs can increase girls’ interest in STEM fields. Can you share a little bit about your findings with that? (10:43)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Yep, so we are still kind of engaging in that, so it’s still a pilot study. But essentially what we’re doing is that inquiry-based and we are finding an increase in girls’ interest, but it’s inquiry-based. So what are you interested in? Because you may not be interested in, how many times a basketball player makes a jump shot, compared to like a free throw, or a three-point shot. So, figuring out what they’re interested in, and diving into that.

And then also it’s a lot about that idea of not being fearful. Because a lot of times those mindsets of I can’t, I’m not a science person, I’m not a math person, start very early, which is what research shows. That it starts very early within girls, that they aren’t good. Many times because the people that they see posted in posters are male scientists. They see male, they talk about male mathematicians. And so, showing and educating girls about female scientists, female mathematicians, and then figuring what are your questions about life? What are your questions about what’s happening in your community? And then let’s discover that. Because everything can be solved or studied, quote-unquote, through science and math, using technology, maybe building and experimenting. And so really diving into that.

"We don't have to give students a worksheet or a test with a right answer. We want to engage in discovery." —Dr. Anni Reinking Share on X

Everything that you’re saying is resonating with me. I’m thinking back to when I was like in first and second grade, I’m like I thought from a very young age, I wasn’t good at it. And I’m like, was I really good at it? And I just was being told that I wasn’t, or you know what I mean? Like what, what caused that? So that’s really interesting. (12:28)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Well, one of the other interesting things, sorry, that some of the research shows that, girls both genders, but what I’m studying is girls, that the same part of your brain that kind of lights up when you are fearful or scared, lights up in older girls when we start to talk about math in classrooms. Yeah, so there is like a biological physiological kind of reaction to math, like the fear, that’s like that dread that anxiety. And so really trying to dissipate that, through really hands-on inquiry-based and getting girls involved is really important.

3 Ways to Integrate STEM Into Your Classroom

In 2018, you published a paper entitled ‘Five STEM Integration Ideas.’ And then the year before it was ’20 STEM Cell Integration Ideas’. And I was wondering if you could share just three because it sounds like you have a host of them. So if you could just share three with us, of how people can integrate STEM into their classrooms more. (13:32)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Absolutely. So one of them that we designed is kind of a self-awareness checklist, a STEM kind of rubric on self-awareness. And so, it has students, usually older students, but if you really model it, you could do it with younger students, is talking about like, what were the questions I asked today? Was I able to persevere? So perseverance is a big term that’s used in math, common core math. So was I able to persevere? What was my engagement level? And so being able to kind of self-assess your learning and your engagement. Instead of the teacher constantly saying, you’re not on task or you’re not persevering, or you’re not being curious, or you’re not being this, having that student really think about their own learning. So that metacognition of thinking about how I learn.

So that’s one, another one is developing curiosity within the classroom. And so, when I was a classroom teacher and now as a professor, I develop curiosity. So, I don’t always have the answers, even if I might know the answer, I don’t have the answers. And so it’s that idea of “I wonder, I don’t know. Let’s figure out how we can figure this out.” And going through that brainstorming process of being curious about the world, and how we can figure that out.

And then the other one is hands-on. So, science shows that nobody really learns, if it’s not hands-on. So through a worksheet really isn’t, hands-on. Through watching a video might be cool to watch, but your brain won’t remember it in the same way, if you didn’t actually include your senses in it. Did I touch it? Did I smell it? Sometimes in science, did I taste it? Do I have that sense memory in order to remember that? And so that’s a third one that we really push for when we’re talking about STEM.

You talk about developing curiosity and as you were talking about all the questions that you ask and how you need to… open to the idea that you won’t know the answer, do you think that’s harder and harder with younger students now that they have Siri, Alexa, and Google? (15:46)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Absolutely. So, right now we basically have college students who were in No Child Left Behind as I said before, and they always had the right answer on an assessment. And I think now the generation of where you always can ask, you can ask anything, right? Like, that we’re going to see that as they come into college, that it’s going to be kind of a different way. Now, if you look at the research, there are people on both kind of ends of the spectrum that say having Siri, Alexa, Google, whatever it is, is actually kind of restructuring our minds, that we aren’t keeping kind of those random facts in our minds. But, evolutionary wise, we’re going to start kind of engaging in deeper thinking. Now that’s not completely researched out, there are people on both ends of it. But I will be interested, especially with my interest in the last few years, talking about brain science and how that impacts learning, what that generation kind of that iGeneration is going to look like as adults, and what that’s gonna do as they dive into different types of learning fields.

The Magic Wand Question

That’s fascinating. And, we ask this question, there’s a final question that I wanna ask you, and we ask it for all of our guests. And it is if you could wave a magic wand, and change one thing about teacher education in the United States, what would it be? (17:13)

Dr. Anni Reinking: That’s a good question. I have two that come to mind. Maybe I can like put them into one long sentence. But I think, there should be no financial roadblocks. I think that we have a lot of really quality individuals in the United States, who would make excellent teachers, but financial instability or financial roadblocks really prevent that. And then along with that, a lot of the teachers who may, or potential teachers who may have those roadblocks, are from communities who have been discriminated against for generations. And so, thinking about how we can really make an equitable learning environment so that when students walk into classrooms, they see people who look like them. They see people who have their same experiences. So while it’s based in finances, I think it really is just overall creating an equitable college experience to continue to educate our future generations.

"When students walk into classrooms, they should see people who look like them. They should see people who have their same experiences." —Dr. Anni Reinking Share on X

Lightning Round

I like that answer a lot. Thank you for sharing that. And finally, at the end of our podcast episode, we do a lightning round with our guests. Essentially that means that I’m gonna ask you a series of questions, and you just need to respond with the one word to one sentence answer. So, are you ready? (18:39)

Dr. Anni Reinking: I am.

Okay. The most rewarding moment of your career? (18:44)

Dr. Anni Reinking: When I taught a little boy how to set his alarm clock, so he could come to school on time.

Last book that you read and enjoyed? (18:52)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Multiplication is for White People by Lisa Delpit.

Favorite conference to attend? (18:57)

Dr. Anni Reinking: The National Association of Multicultural Education.

The best movie you’ve seen in the past year? (19:04)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Well, all I watch are adventure movies, cause of my son, so I’ll say one of the Avenger movies.

Dr. Reinking, thank you so much. I really feel like we’ve learned a lot from you about the new science that is coming out and how to apply science into our classrooms. And I think that’s really important in this day and age. So, thank you for taking the time to share your expertise in your experiences with us. (19:27)

Dr. Anni Reinking: Excellent, thank you so much for having me today.


That’s it for today. Don’t forget to subscribe. If you like, what you heard, please rate and review this podcast to help others find us. The Teacher Education Podcast is brought to you by GoReact. This episode was hosted by me, Hillary Gamblin, and produced by Danielle Burt, Joseph Winter, and Jordan Harris. Chad Jardine is our executive producer. Guests on the podcast are expressing personal opinions for informational purposes only. They’re not acting as official representatives for the universities or organizations.