Lisa Harrison with some of her Rancho Minerva Middle School students.
Lisa Harrison with some of her Rancho Minerva Middle School students, displaying grant award kits. Images via Harrison

Lisa Harrison has taught at Rancho Minerva Middle School in Vista for 12 years. And if herding nearly 170 sixth- through eighth-graders through computer science and robotics isn’t impressive enough, consider her latest honor.

Late last month, the Washington-based nonprofit Society for Science named Harrison one of 95 exceptional science teachers from underserved communities. She was chosen along with educators from 29 states and D.C. plus American Samoa, Guam and Puerto Rico as well as Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.

Lisa Harrison will share four of these kits with a photography teacher and learning loss science teacher. Image via Society4Science

It was Harrison’s first time seeking that grant — after learning about it from her district office.

“I was intrigued by the concept of putting tech in kids’ hands and letting them drive the inquiry, and that is what I wrote about in my proposal,” she said.

Unspoken in her pitch was the biggest challenge she sees to public education. Not charter schools or private schools. Not budget cuts or lack of parental and community support.

“Right now, I think the greatest threat to public education is teacher exhaustion,” she told Times of San Diego. “The pandemic was rough on the profession. Getting kids back into the classroom was great, but there was a lot of extra work to ensure everyone was safe.”

She and some colleagues will share four Arduino starter kits (for electronics study), two PocketLab voyagers (to explore physics, weather, climate studies and engineering), four trail cameras (attachable to trees or poles to monitor wildlife) and four LaMotte water monitoring kits (to investigate water quality and contamination).

Kits are valued at $1,000 each. 

“Together we will be introducing the kits and how they work in the classroom and ask for the students to come up with questions they have about their world that could be addressed by using the kits,” Harrison said. “The students can use the kits at school or take them home.  When they are done they will be able to present what they learned by whatever means makes them most comfortable.”

Born and raised in San Diego, she now lives in Fallbrook with her husband of 30 years. 

Harrison, 55, earned a biology degree from UC Santa Barbara and trained to be a clinical laboratory scientist.  She worked in the Scripps system until her third child was born and quit to be a stay-at-home mom. 

“When my oldest started college I went back to school to get my teaching credential and my subject authorization in science.  I started teaching math and science at Rancho Minerva Middle school in 2010,” she says. 

A couple of years into her teaching career she became a digital learning coach through a then brand-new venture called Digital Promise/Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (DPVILS). 

“All of our students were given the use of tablets with cell service to use for school,” she said.  “During my time with DPVILS I was sent to a Project Lead the Way (PLTW) training that allowed me to teach an introduction to Computer Science course.”

With grant money, she attended training that allows her to teach both of the PLTW middle school CS course and their Robotics course. She also attends conferences to learn the codehs platform, where students learn HTML and CSS — the website languages. 

“A few years ago, my district sent me to a weeklong training at UCSD to learn to teach the code.org Computer Science Discoveries curriculum,” Harrison said via email.  “Last summer I participated in a training through the University of Chicago to learn their curriculum for Scratch and took the first of four courses at UCSD which would allow me to obtain a single subject credential in Computer Science.” 

So she says she started as a math and science teacher and morphed into an electives teacher. 

Harrison now teaches one section of computer science for seventh- and eighth-graders, one section of Maker Lab, one section of Robotics and two sections of sixth-grade computer science.

“My teaching partner and I write all of the curriculum for the Maker Lab.  I use the PLTW curriculum for the Robotics class.  For sixth-grade Computer science, I use a mixture of a Scratch curriculum from the University of Chicago called Encore, and Scratch lessons I have come up with over the years.”

She sees about 168 students a day at the feeder school to Vista High School and Rancho Buena Vista High School.

This chat was conducted via email:

Times of San Diego: Computer and programming skills are, of course, crucial in general but essential for societal progress. How do you sell students on the importance of these skills?

Lisa Harrison: I think most students know that computer and programming skills are important, but don’t see themselves going into that industry.  Because every student takes at least one quarter of computer science, they have an opportunity to see what they are capable of doing.  That is the sell;  even though not everyone may fall in love with computer science and programming, every student CAN program. 
 
What are your most advanced students capable of doing? What are their career prospects if they keep it up in HS and college? What share of your students continue in CS or robotics? Any noteworthy success stories (if you’ve been teaching CS long enough)?

Embarrassingly, I have not kept track of where my students are and what they are doing.  Currently, my Computer Science students can use HIML and CSS to create their own webpages.  They are in the process of learning how to use JavaScript to create a video game. The Robotics students can use RobotC to code their motors and sensors for the projects they build.  
 
Do anything special to recruit girls into your program? What share of your students are girls? How do you retain them, keep them motivated?

I don’t do anything specific to recruit girls.  In the sixth-grade classes, the students have a lot of choice. For every unit, they create their own project with specific programming requirements, but they get to choose the theme and characters they include. The students pick their own seats, and get to work with other students they are friends with. I have a couple of students that often take their Chromebooks outside to work. I try to create an environment where they are happy and so enjoy what they are doing.  
 
Political forces (Trump and climate-change deniers) have made life hard for some scientists. Does any of this filter down to middle school education? Have you ever felt pressure from parents to toe a certain scientific line? Or has any parent complained about your topics or methods?

I have not experienced any pushback from parents.  Parents that I have met during open house or conferences are either delighted that their middle schooler has access to my classes, or are just in awe of what they have been able to learn and do.
 
What groups do you belong to that advocate for science or CS education? What do these groups fear or fight? Budget cuts? School board restrictions on education?

I am a member of the CSTA San Diego.  I have attended the last two CSTA conferences. Equity is a big push.  All students, regardless of where they go to school, should have access to a robust computer science education.    
 
Does the Vista Unified School District do all it can to support science or CS education?

My district has been great in supporting STEM education.  There is a district committee that I sit on that is working on ways to make STEM education, including Computer Science Education, better throughout the district.  
 
How will the Society4Science grants help you and colleagues do a better job? How long will these kits or grants last?

Student agency. Being able to have students learn through an experience that they have chosen or have an interest in. Cool equipment, that they would not normally have access to creates an excitement that fuels creativity and engagement.  I have not yet used the kits from the grant, but I imagine they will last us a couple of years.
 
How can the public and district parents support science educators in general and your subjects in particular?

Parents can encourage their children to take STEM electives in school, and if those electives are not offered, talk with the parent groups or administrators and see how their individual schools could benefit from parent support.  Parents, teachers and administrators — we are all in this together.