“STEM is all about problem-solving. You have to solve problems, you have to use the scientific method. No matter what you’re doing, or what problem you’re solving, STEM helps you get there.”
BROCKTON — Thirteen years ago, Jake O’Neill left his geology job to start teaching science at Davis Middle School.
The Brockton community is forever grateful he did.
O’Neill, beloved for his hands-on approach to science and robotics at the south side school, was named a National STEM Scholar in 2018 by the National Stem Cell Foundation, sharing the honor with nine other middle school science teachers from across the country.
The distinction allowed him to spend time this summer with fellow scholars at a convention in Kentucky, where they discussed the best methods to approach subjects like engineering and science with their young students.
To O’Neill, the answer is always to get interactive with his science projects.
“That’s a big focus for me, is to get hands-on,” he said Tuesday in his classroom. “You can do vocabulary all you want, but the kids really start learning when they have something to work on right in front of them.”
His National STEM Scholar distinction (which came with a $2,500 grant) has helped do just that. Tuesday afternoon, O’Neill and his seventh-grade students were working with little robots that he acquired with that grant money — setting coordinates and coding pathways for the tiny machines called Ozobots (which look a bit like Star Wars’ BB-8 robot) to follow.
Atop a small-scale blueprint of the school, O’Neill and his students set one of the robots down in “their classroom.”
“The goal,” he told his kids gathered around the blueprint, “is to get the robot to go out the door and to the office.”
Sure enough, the little robot headed out the door and up the hall.
But then it took a wrong turn — it went in the opposite direction of where it was supposed to go. It was a problem in the code, O’Neill explained: we had it take a 90-degree turn, but we actually need it to go…
“Negative 90,” offered one student after a few moments of silence.
“Two-seventy,” a few others responded.
Both answers, he grinned, are spot on.
Tuesday’s classroom example reveals one of the key tenets of STEM that bleeds into all other education, O’Neill said: problem-solving.
“STEM is all about problem-solving,” O’Neill said. “You have to solve problems, you have to use the scientific method. No matter what you’re doing or what problem you’re solving, STEM helps you get there.”
Before he began teaching, O’Neill worked as a geologist focusing on environmental issues and contamination. It was about 14 years ago when Davis principal Darlene Campbell, who already knew O’Neill, twisted his arm into getting his teaching certification.
He was teaching science at the K-8 school not long after, and has remained in that same classroom ever since.
“I thank God every day he (started teaching),” Campbell said Tuesday. “He’s an outstanding guy, an outstanding teacher and the kids just love him.”