We asked a bunch of STEM professionals about the teachers that shaped their careers

Maths classroom
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In an effort to give kudos to the teachers – and systems – who shaped some of STEM’s most innovative minds, we hit up a bunch of industry professionals and asked them to tell us about their most-memorable STEM educators.

Lisa Harvey-Smith

Astrophysicist and Women in STEM ambassador

“My chemistry lecturer at college – Andrew – was obviously very passionate about teaching. I loved the way he made the behaviour of atoms so logical, delving in at the level of protons, electrons and neutrons to guide our understanding of how every atom in the universe was built.

Lisa Harvey-Smith
Lisa Harvey-Smith is the Australian Government’s Women in STEM ambassador.

“From these foundations everything made perfect sense to me and I felt completely empowered to predict any chemical reaction you cared to throw at me!

“If I saw Andrew today I’d like to say thanks for inspiring my research career, studying chemicals in interstellar space.”

Jared Chin Yeow Wong

Data Analyst, Digivizer and casual Academic @ Faculty of Trandisciplinary Innovation at University of Technology Sydney

“I would like to say a big thank you to my first-year, Engineering Mechanics lecturer at UNSW, Associate Professor Robin Ford.

“It was the year 2007 and we were the last cohort he taught before retirement. I remember vividly the first phrase he said, ‘I’m going to train you to see things from an engineer’s eyes’ instead of just the boring, ‘You are going to learn Chapter 1: Two Dimensional Force Systems, Chapter 2: Kinematics of Rigid Body, Chapter 3: Stress and Strain.’

Jared is a data analyst at digital agency Digivizer.

“Robin showed me that knowledge is about gaining fresh perspectives or lenses, and that is key to being successful. In my career, I’ve moved from engineering to banking to digital analytics and back to academia. As the number of hats grew, I adapted and gained even more knowledge.

“At each stage, I always sought to use science-based analysis to guide me in making decisions. One simple and fast way to gain a new perspective is to put yourself in the shoes of others. Your ideas, concerns, considerations, and actions will change. Same goes if you are thinking of yourself as a member of family, community, state, country, region or a global citizen, ideas will differ from if you are thinking of yourself just as an individual.

“Now as a lecturer myself, Robin should be proud to learn that I motivate my Bachelor of Technology and Innovation students using the same principles! I’m training them to be technologists, analysts, and change-makers that have a broad overview of the working mechanics within business organisations.”

Heather Catchpole

Director and head of content, Careers with STEM 

Heather is one of the co-founders of Careers with STEM.

“My year 7 science teacher made a habit of handling liquid mercury (not recommended), burning magnesium, and blowing up bins – but he made the class so exciting.

“My year 7 maths teacher was a world renowned chess champion, and described negative number subtraction and addition in terms of horses charging each other on the field! I still use these techniques with my own kids to bring dry maths topics to life.”

Maria Antwan

Director, WD Design and Build

“I always had good marks in school, but once I hit high school, I started to really struggle in mathematics and towards the end of year 9 I was failing. It was hard for me as I always was a good student and never failed anything. I found it all too difficult and it really messed with my confidence. I stopped listening, started to play up in class and even skipped school.

“Early on in year 10, my teacher, Mr Pham pulled me aside. He could see I was frustrated and was struggling. I told him I just wasn’t good at maths and at the end of year 10 was going to drop out of class. He listened to my complaining and my negative self-talk. Calmly he said ‘Okay, drop math but before you do, why not go out with a bang? Give it everything you’ve got and really try until the end of the year. Then you can say you really tried and it’s not for you.’

“I don’t know why, but I listened. Deep down, I was still wanting to be a good student and I wanted to prove to him that no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t good at maths. So, I spent the next several months applying myself – studying, listening and learning all that I could. Within several months, I went from failing maths, to achieving high marks.

Maria Antwan
Maria heads up construction company NWD Design & Build.

“This was a life-changing moment for me and something that has stuck with me forever, especially the older I get. I realised that I made up my mind that I was bad at something and just gave up, I stopped trying. Had Mr Pham not believed in me I probably would forever not believe that I can change my circumstances and my life.

“I finished school in 2001. I don’t think I ever really thanked Mr Pham for instilling such a powerful lesson. In 2010 I heard he passed away from cancer. He was only 47 and left behind a wife and 5 children.

“Being a teacher is a thankless job. It is only years later that I can reflect and share this wonderful memory and how much this teacher had impacted me in such a profound way. Thank you Mr Pham.”

Muneera Bano 

Lecturer, Swinburne University of Technology

“Throughout my computing education all my teachers were men. My first female teacher and role model in the field of computing was my ex-supervisor at University of Technology Sydney, Professor Didar Zowghi.

Dr Muneera Bano
Dr Muneera Bano has received prestigious recognition for her work, including being named as a finalist for Google Australia’s Anita Borg Award for Women in Computer Science.

“I came to Australia as an international student and she was not just a supervisor but also a great mentor whose guidance enabled me to achieve a brilliant head start in academia. Knowing that in her personal time she was also a volunteer teacher of English language to refugees and online-teacher of computing for underprivileged and persecuted students in Iran made me reflect on my sense of purpose and career choices.

“I would like her to know that she was the inspiration for me to become a mentor myself and join the ‘Superstars of STEM’ to inspire other female international students coming to Australia from South Asian or Middle Eastern backgrounds.”

Gemma Chilton

Content lead, Careers with STEM

Gemma Chilton heads up the content team on Careers with STEM.

“My maths teacher in high school was Mrs Rulli. She was young, probably not that much older than the year 12 students! Class always felt fun and social and I looked forward to going, probably not what most school kids associate with maths class.

“I loved that Mrs Rulli as a young female teacher smashed stereotypes about women and maths, and about maths as boring and no fun – there was lots of laughing in our classes. I’m sure we all performed better as a result.”

Kshira Saagar

Director of data science, THE ICONIC and Global Fashion Group

“The main reason I fell in love with STEM were two amazingly wonderful teachers in my high school – one each for maths and physics. Typically known as the boring subjects or the hard subjects that are too dry, these two amazing souls made every single class so interesting and enlightening, that people would actually look forward to both classes.

“The favourite aspect/trait that I learnt from my Maths teacher was how to appreciate the physical and real world applications of mathematics in everything we see around us – be it differential calculus, algebra or even trigonometry! For example, with trigonometry, we’d be told all the interesting stories on how the pioneers measured Mt Everest and more, and how we could do that too if we learnt the fundamentals ourselves.

Kshira is director of data science at THE ICONIC, although he prefers the title “person who works with data.”

“From my physics teacher, I learnt how to meld the academic world from school books to principles in real life. He’d always take the opportunity to delve into the philosophy of each experiment, each physical phenomenon and even the process of discovering new scientific phenomena. The best example I remember is when he taught us how to appreciate infinity as a concept and how it was completely relative – in the context of an atom 1mm is infinity, whereas in the context of a human being 100 million meters and more seemed like infinity.

“Looking back, I realised that the two aspects of learning and loving STEM are understanding the physical/real-world phenomena behind things, and more importantly being able to apply that to every day living and thinking. Thanks to my wonderful teachers who have helped me get deeper into STEM.”

Psyched on STEM ed? Hit up our teachers hub for stacks of classroom resources.

Cassie Steel

Author: Cassie Steel

As Refraction’s digital assistant, Cassie Steel spends her days researching robots and stalking famous scientists on Twitter.

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