STEM programs -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics -- are changing the face of education, first through afterschool clubs and more recently in the classroom.
And Ben Loduha, in his innovative role as STEM Instructional Coach for all 27 schools in Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, is enjoying a front-row seat for the transformation of his profession.
"It really is the best job," the 31-year-old says. "And every day is so different!"
For seven years, Loduha was a classroom science teacher at District 54's Keller Junior High School in Schaumburg. But two years ago, Loduha moved into his current job, becoming the first to hold it.
As STEM coach, Loduha assists other teachers and their students as they tackle a variety of STEM projects.
This school year sees another change, as for the first time every building and grade level in District 54 is using his help.
Programs range from Engineering is Elementary classes in the early grades to instruction in rocketry, robotics, computers and 3-D design and printing down the line.
Though the programs still make up only a small part of each student's day, the positive impact they've had is disproportionately great, Loduha said.
"Kids like solving problems," he said. "If you're engaged in one part of your day, you're engaged in the rest of the day."
Furthermore, students have an easier time seeing the relevance of what they're learning in their traditional math and science classes. And by engaging students in such thinking so young, different classroom leaders emerge and gender differences fail to manifest themselves when it comes to an interest in math and science, Loduha said.
Even teachers who may have had their concentration in other subjects are finding there's nothing to fear about teaching students engineering and technology, he added.
"They don't have to know a lot in advance," Loduha said. "They can learn it along with their students. We're not hoping that every student becomes an engineer, but that they know how to tackle problems of any kind."
Loduha makes it clear he doesn't know the answer to every problem in advance. The three skills he tries to model are communication, collaboration and critical thinking.
Students are often teaching him things he didn't know by adopting these characteristics themselves, he said.
One student figured out how to make a remote control for the robot he created in class -- something Loduha didn't realize was possible with the materials provided.
On one electricity project, a teacher didn't realize alligator clips were needed on the wires students were using and cut them off. But the kids figured out how to make the project work without the clips.
"It's stuff like that that just blows my mind," Loduha said.
Having started as an engineering major, Loduha switched to education while at the University of Illinois.
He said a lot of the encouragement for STEM programs in elementary and high schools is coming from universities. They've expressed some concern that there aren't enough students pursuing technical degrees, which could ultimately threaten the United States' role as the most innovative country in the world, Loduha said.
"At STEM conferences, they remind us that you can't even imagine the jobs that your students will be doing," he said. "The job I have didn't exist when I was in college."
On a recent afternoon at Aldrin Elementary School in Schaumburg, Loduha divided his time between helping introduce sixth-graders to the computer software for their Northwestern University-designed FUSE class and advising second-graders designing 10-inch-tall cardboard towers to keep a small stuffed monkey safe from imaginary alligators below.
"The students absolutely love him," said Carrie Shawala, a sixth-grade teacher at Aldrin. "They get so excited when they are told he is coming or whenever they see him."
Second-grade teacher Gina Brown said Loduha goes the extra mile to help make the Engineering is Elementary classes such a success.
"Without his expertise, we wouldn't be where we are with understanding, planning and implementing the EIE curriculum," she said.
Aldrin Principal Mary Botterman said Loduha gets both students and teachers excited about their STEM classes.
"It's the children's favorite time of day," she said of Loduha's visits. "Ben's approach about how he questions gets the students to think and the teachers to think. It's about finding the most efficient way to solve a problem."