This is the second in a series of VEEP educator profiles, where we take a minute out of our day to chat with our amazing staff, learn about their lives, hear more about what fires them up — and share their story with you.
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Andy Shapiro: ‘We’re doing so much cool stuff!’
“In the early 90s,” Andy Shapiro says, talking about going into classrooms to lead VEEP programs, “I would say, ‘Put your hand up if you’ve ever heard of global warming or climate change.'” There would be maybe one hand.” Today, he says, every hand or nearly every hand goes up when he asks that same question.
Many things have changed since Andy, VEEP’s director of science and engineering education, joined VEEP 26 years ago. His love of bringing science and environmental issues to kids in a real way is not one of them.
“I like explaining stuff to people, helping them measure things,” he says. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about energy out there. There’s still a lot of need for education.” Andy particularly enjoys how VEEP’s kind of education gets students thinking and exploring independently: “When you can see gears turning in kids’ heads, it’s great.”
Andy grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, and lived “a lot of different places between here and there” with his wife, Carolyn, before settling in Vermont in the 1980s. Andy had been working as an energy engineer in the building industry since the 1970s, and by the mid 1980s, he was working as a consultant, a job he’s been doing ever since in addition to his work with VEEP.
It was a few years later, in 1989, that Andy met VEEP’s founder, Fran Barhydt. A solar-powered car race, the Tour de Sol, was coming through Montpelier, and Andy called up the organization in charge of the race to ask if they were doing any outreach to local youth. The organization put him in touch with Fran, who was leading a workshop for local teachers so they could explain to their students how the solar cars worked.
Andy went to the workshop, and he and Fran connected immediately. “I had technical info that was helpful, our teaching styles were compatible — we liked each other from the start,” he remembers. “We started working together then and there.”
Andy was VEEP’s second staff person. He worked with the technical aspects of VEEP’s programs, while Fran handled the education and pedagogy end. “She was very good at demystifying the teaching of science for elementary teachers with little science background,” he says. Andy and Fran wrote grants and curricula together, and they both taught in classrooms.
Though Andy mostly works now on developing VEEP’s materials, those moments with students are still his favorites.
“I really like it when kids get to invent stuff on their own,” he says. “Where they really get to create something, then go after learning how well it works, testing it and changing it.” The Solar Challenge is one of his favorite examples of this: “When someone boils water in their solar collector, and that water is too hot to touch, no one can ever tell them that solar doesn’t work in Vermont.”
“So I see them calculating,” he says. “There’s one kid, he’s standing there. You can see the gears turning. I said, ‘What are you thinking about?’ He said, ‘I think I got it! Area — it’s how much STUFF!’ Working with his hands allowed this kid to connect with a concept,” a mathematical idea that had always been abstract to him before.
Those golden moments can happen to everyone, from the energetic student who’s always fiddling with something to the quiet bookworm. “The kids who didn’t excel in science, because they’re not book learners, can excel at hands-on projects,” Andy says. He notes that deeper learning happens when you transfer from your preferred method to a less comfortable one, whether that’s from books to building things or vice versa.
Like students, not every classroom or every school is at the same place when it comes to science education. “The challenge is getting beyond teachers who know that this stuff is important,” Andy says.
“20 years ago, we did workshops in a one-room schoolhouse,” he recalls. “We brought all the tools and materials with us, even the yardsticks. They NEEDED hands-on science. They were so grateful.” He feels that VEEP is most successful in situations like that, when it can directly meet a school’s specific needs.
Andy is encouraged by the future of VEEP’s work. “We’re doing so much cool stuff!” he says. “We’re getting a lot more sophisticated in what we offer. And we’re meeting teachers’ needs better.”
He is particularly optimistic about the Next Generation Science Standards, the latest in three sets of statewide education standards that have happened during his time with VEEP. He wasn’t a big fan of the first two, but “I think this latest one is quite good,” he says. “It’s research based, it’s hands-on based. It’s exploring and tinkering — which is science and engineering.”
“Kids are natural scientists and engineers,” he adds. “They love tinkering and exploring. The new standards feed that instead of squelch it.”
Andy is clear that science education needs to go beyond simple observation, though, especially in a world where every student’s hand goes up when you ask about climate change.
“Once you understand that the earth is heating up, it’s kind of a scary notion,” he says. “Well — how can we empower kids to do something, so they feel like they have some agency in this?”
He notes that VEEP’s focus on action has been growing over the last 10 or 15 years, starting with what used to be Green Schools (now the Green School Energy Challenge) as well as action components of many of VEEP’s curricula.
“I come at this stuff from an environmental perspective,” he adds. “Giving young people a chance to act and change things is really important.”
Talking to Andy, you’ll start to get the feeling that action and environmentalism run through many facets of his life. He and Carolyn built a solar-powered home in 1988 and raised their daughter, Sarah, there. Five years ago, they moved to a six-unit cohousing community in East Montpelier, a neighborhood of small, well-insulated solar homes that Andy helped design, with solar hot water and a common boiler fired by wood pellets. When asked what he likes to do besides VEEP work, Andy’s response is quick: “Well, the thing I’m going to do next — which is get on my bicycle! I always love that.”
“I love to cook and garden,” he adds. “We have a big garden, a couple thousand square feet, and a big root cellar,” which is currently full of carrots, onions, garlic, squash, potatoes, apples, and even sweet potatoes, which Andy says are “surprisingly easy” to grown in Vermont — easier than they used to be. “Climate change has some benefits,” he says wryly.
Want to get Andy’s ideas for science and engineering in your classroom, or just say hi? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.