Story by Josh Betanzos and photos by Jan Osborn
When Lisa Wong launched the STEM program at Trinity Christian Academy, her goal and passion was to teach the kids that they can use STEM fields to bless others in the world around them. She views her time as an investment in the future.
“These children are the future problem solvers,” Wong said. “With problems like cancer, climate change – these huge problems that need solving – if I can spark that interest in innovative thinking, outside the box problem solving, helping the world, helping others, that is really my passion.”
Wong shared this, almost as an off-handed remark, during the middle of a conversation we had one morning before the school day began. How often is it that we look to hear these kinds of philosophies from the lips of our teachers – the men and women who tackle the task of preparing the next generation of thinkers and change-makers head on? The passion is unmistakable, but Wong matches it with the same follow through that not only improves a school community, but the ones surrounding it as well.
Wong joined the TCA community over nine years ago, and she certainly has left her mark. No one doubted she would make an impact when she joined the team as a former engineer with Raytheon, schooled in mechanical engineering with experience in the aerospace and defense industry working on missiles.
What they did not expect was for her to build a STEM program that would stand as a blueprint of success for schools and organizations domestically and abroad. But that’s the type of impact that can be made when the underlying objective is to make the world a better place.
Wong started small, launching an after school program for third and fourth grade students. Soon enough, the program filled up, but she wanted to get more students involved. She turned to the Upper school STEM students, and tasked them with assisting her to carry out the after school program, assigning them tasks like leading small design teams, ingenuity she credits to her creative engineering skills.
That turned into Wong encouraging the Lower school STEM teachers to develop a STEM lab for the whole Lower school, wherein after school, pre-K to fourth graders can go to the STEM lab every week for projects and activities. Then, she started the Upper school STEM club, where opportunities range from robotics competitions and math competitions, to creative projects. There is also a tech intern class launched in 2014, where Upper school students learn from the Director of Technology herself how to repair any of the 500 PC tablets TCA students use from 9th through 12th grades. Not only are they learning hard skills of computer support and how to independently repair their own technology, they also learn soft skills in customer service and how to professionally deal with faculty and parents requiring help.
Then, Wong created one of the hallmarks of the TCA STEM program: an honors engineering design class for seniors only. It is a rigorous course that teaches industry experience, beginning with the engineering design cycle and applying it towards processes like design, manufacturing, 3D printing, analysis, and supply chain issues.
In the third trimester of the course, Wong breaks students into smaller groups and pairs them with families in the Dallas area who have children with disabilities or birth defects. Through a joint partnership with Joni and Friends Texas, a Christian non-profit that aims to help people with disabilities, they design products for those families that are custom-made to that child and family’s situation. This is just another example of Wong’s innovation – not only are her students gaining real world experience building practical products, but they are empowering their community and supplying needs that might be too expensive or do not even exist yet.
Georgia Scalfano, a former student of Wong’s first ever engineering class at TCA, beamed on Wong’s passion for service and its impact on her education and career.
“[She] inspired me to pursue my degree in engineering, and eventually go on to pursue a career in engineering, too. I’m now a sustainability engineer for a non-profit organization, and I can honestly say that I use the values she taught me every day.”
Scalfano’s project in the honors engineering class was to construct a learning apparatus for a child in the community living with hydrocephalus, a condition where excess cerebrospinal fluid builds up in a child’s brain. For children with this condition, it causes severe mobility issues and cognitive difficulties. The team designed and constructed a custom interactive board at his wheelchair level that he and his parents could attach various lights, toys, and letters to in order to ease the learning process for him.
Aside from Joni and Friends Texas, Wong’s students also partner with non-profit organizations like Manegait, a therapeutic horsemanship program for children and adults with disabilities, and her Upper school STEM club students are working with an organization in Nicaragua to build a clean water system for a small village. Club members are working with engineers in Nicaragua to map out where the system will be built, drawing up plans, and presenting them to the Water Council.
The projects are never simple. Wong wants her students to run into problems. And yes, she understands it takes a long time to figure out projects that 18 year olds can accomplish in two months with no experience, but that’s precisely her point.
“I want them to struggle,” Wong said. “I want them to have supply chain issues. I want them to run out of money, and I want their parts to fail before they actually present it, because that’s real life. I want them to struggle through that and learn how to pivot and redesign.”
Wong now serves as Director of Technology and STEM at TCA, and aims to make an impact on every child she comes into contact with, not just by empowering them in STEM, but by making them thoughtful people of service in the world.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed with certain gifts. So how am I to use that to help others? I teach them that their gifts may be different from mine, but they can still use them,” Wong said. “Innovation involves all people, everyone has a skill set of value. To spark that interest is so important, and everyone can contribute to and be inspired and help in the world.”