In pre-pandemic times, Tori Cameron’s classroom at the Gordon W. Mitchell School in East Bridgewater would be swarming with groups of students working together to build cardboard video games one week, or high-tech robots the next, while music blasted in the background.
The music is still loud, but students do their building individually at a socially acceptable distance, or at home, using boxes of materials that Cameron prepared for each of her more than 650 kids in grades 3 through 6. The boxes contain everything from popsicle sticks and glue to copper tape and Alka Seltzer tabs for making lava lamps.
“It definitely has been a learning curve because there are a lot of rules and regulations,” said Cameron. “It just works differently.”
But Cameron, who was recently named the 2020 Massachusetts STEM Teacher of the Year, is used to figuring out how to make things work. In fact, that’s a key component of the curriculum for her STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) Lab, the program she started four years ago at Gordon Mitchell School.
“It’s a lot of problem-solving and hands-on projects,” she said. “I hope my students come away with 21st century skills: being creative, able to work in groups, to problem-solve, and love to learn no matter what topic.”
Cameron also wants her students to be comfortable with failure.
“The best part of the engineering design process is testing, and if it doesn’t work, you change it and make it better,” she said. “It’s so important, especially for young kids, to be able to work through that frustration, and be motivated by it, and learn from something not working the first time.”
Cameron said she was motivated to become a teacher by Kristina Landry, her first- and second-grade teacher in Tyngsborough who “made learning magical and fun.” A graduate of Bridgewater State University with a master’s in education from Fitchburg State University, Cameron has been teaching since 2014 — with some time away to direct the STEM program at the Hockomock Area YMCA in Foxborough.
She started teaching math and science in Auburn and then East Bridgewater, before starting the STEAM Lab at Gordon Mitchell School.
Cameron also runs the Girls Who STEAM Club at the school — as well as the esports, gardening, and media clubs — and holds an annual Family STEAM Night. She hosts a monthly podcast for educators called STEAM Up in the Classroom, and teaches graduate education classes at Fitchburg State.
She also runs summer programs, including a kindergarten program called STEAM for Littles.
Cameron had been developing a STEAM program for the Metropolitan University of Somalia, a project that’s been on hold since the pandemic hit. And she recently published her first book, “Awesome Brain Games for Kids: STEAM Puzzles and Facts for Curious Minds.”
She and her husband, Mitchell, live in Hanson with their 3-year-old son Raynor and 1-year-old son Jamie.
“Life is busy, life is good,” she said.
Cameron received the award — formally titled the Patriots Hall of Fame presented by Raytheon Technologies Massachusetts STEM Teacher of the Year — virtually from Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito on Oct. 20, and her school will receive $5,000 to be used for STEM education.
The award was first given in 2012, an initiative that Robert Kraft started as part of the Patriots Hall of Fame education program, with winners selected by state education officials and hall executives.
Johanna Seltz can be reached at email@example.com.