Q&A with PLTW Biomedical Science Teacher Stephanie Gurule-Leyba

New Mexico Secretary of Education Hannah Skandera announced last fall that Stephanie Gurule-Leyba is the 2017 New Mexico Teacher of the Year. Gurule-Leyba is a PLTW Biomedical Science teacher at Capital High School in the Santa Fe Public Schools district.

She recently joined other states’ Teacher of the Year awardees at the White House for a special ceremony recognizing the honorees.

Learn more in our Q&A with Stephanie below:

Q: How does it feel to be named the 2017 New Mexico Teacher of the Year?

A: I was in complete shock but very excited! I am so pleased that career pathway teachers are being recognized for their work with students. Everything that I do, I do for my students. I am so proud to be a teacher and enjoy working with my students each and every day.

Q: You’ve been a teacher for 21 years. For how long have you taught PLTW Biomedical Science, and which courses do you teach? How has your experience with PLTW been different from your previous teaching experiences?

A: I began my journey in 2009 with PLTW at Stevenson University as I trained in Principles of Biomedical Science (PBS). I have now taught all four courses and currently teach PBS, Medical Interventions (MI), and Biomedical Innovation (BI). PLTW Biomedical Science coursework is the anchor of our Medical Science Academy.

My philosophies in teaching are, as I like to call them, The Three Rs – Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. PLTW’s curriculum does just that. My students see the meaning behind everything they complete. I am always bringing college and career readiness into everything that I do so PLTW really reinforces this concept. I am always telling students that they need to treat their education as a career – what is expected of them in my classroom is what will be expected of them in college and career. With the PLTW curriculum, my students are given the freedom to put their ideas into action (with guidance and facilitation), giving them real ownership because they are responsible for their work and what they are trying to accomplish.

Q: How have you implemented what you’ve learned through PLTW Professional Development and/or PLTW’s Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in your classroom?

A: I really enjoy the teacher networking that PLTW provides and also the (unofficial) networking that teachers start themselves. Education is an area that has continued to evolve throughout the years, and as a teacher, it is always important to establish a continuum of professional development and training to strengthen and sustain our craft in order for us to keep student learning fun, exciting, and enjoyable. This is why I am constantly researching and educating myself on the latest educational concepts and initiatives that I believe will be the best fit for my classroom and my students.

Q: What is it about biomedical science and medicine that fascinates you? How do you share that passion with your students?

A: I would be lying if I said that I planned to become a teacher. As a pre-medical student in college, I began working with students at the elementary and secondary levels as part of my community service and was then persuaded, by a professor and mentor, to enroll in an Introduction to Teaching course as one of my non-science elective courses for my medical school application. I began to discover that I could really do well as a teacher, and I knew that I had a lot of energy and exciting ideas that I wanted to share. I am passionate about science and medicine, and I knew that by becoming a teacher, I could share that passion with so many young people. When working as a volunteer in the local schools, I would get so excited (as I still do today) to meet “my students” on a weekly basis for their tutoring sessions and assist teachers in their classrooms. I enjoyed watching the students take ownership in their learning and get excited when they grasped a concept.

I graduated with my bachelor’s of science in biology and chemistry, and I decided against medical school and continued my education, working on my teacher certifications in science education and special education. I consider that decision to have changed my life for the better. I love helping mold the lives of students and encouraging them in and out of the classroom. I consider myself to have one of the most rewarding jobs, and I enjoy going to work every day to encourage my students, teach them educational and life lessons, and listen to them when they need me. I have the best of both worlds: I get to teach a subject area that I have always loved.

Q: How about students who aren’t necessarily passionate about bioscience or do not plan to study a medical field after high school? How can PLTW Biomedical Science courses benefit them in any career path they choose?

A: Many of my students start the Medical Science Academy thinking that they want to become healthcare professionals, and then somewhere along the way, they decide that this isn’t what they want anymore. I am always telling them that it is OK and that they will figure it out. Sometimes the coursework directs them in a different path. The most important thing is that the PLTW curriculum is preparing them for college and career. It teaches them not only about healthcare and STEM but also about relationships and citizenship.

Q: Outside of PLTW, you’ve found ways to engage your district’s younger students in science and medicine. Tell us about the Scrub Club.

A: Nationally, there is a lack of female participation in STEM-related fields compared to males, but there is a shortage of males in healthcare. We have also experienced this in the Medical Science Academy with low numbers of males in comparison to females. 

Starting Scrub Club – a STEAM-Healthcare enrichment summer program for fourth- through eighth-grade students – has been an extremely enriching and rewarding experience. Developing a program from the ground up has been a huge endeavor, but the time and effort has been well worth it. Scrub Club has now completed its fifth year. It began with 55 students, one level, and five camp counselors and grew to 220 students, three levels, and 20 camp counselors in the summer of 2016. It’s something that I would have never imagined when I started this project. Scrub Club has attracted more males (approximately half are males), and this year our first biomedical class is finally seeing an increase in males (approximately 40 percent) compared to past years (as low as 10 percent) as they have transitioned from Scrub Club to the high school program.

I feel that Scrub Club has not only immersed our younger generation into the world of science but has also shown them the amazing things they can do. Science literacy, something that needs continued emphasis, is a huge component of the program.

Scrub Club has become a model program for other programming throughout the school district, and I have advised other teachers on starting their own enrichment programs in their career pathways.

Q: How has the Scrub Club served as a recruiting tool for your program?

A: Scrub Club has really helped with the publicity of the Medical Science Academy. Of the original 55 students, approximately 40 of them are enrolled in the Medical Science Academy. It has also given us the opportunity to build the relationships with students and families that is necessary for student success. My Scrub Club students know that regardless of whether they are here at the high school or still in elementary or middle school, I am an email or phone call away if they need me.

Q: What favorite technique or best practice would you choose if you could share one thing with other PLTW Biomedical Science teachers throughout the country?

A: Sometimes as teachers we are so wrapped up in state-mandated testing, Common Core, and pacing guides that we forget that learning needs to be fun and enjoyable. Teachers need to keep learning relevant and tangible as they meet the necessary standards.

Also, it is important to include students in why they are learning specific concepts and why they are doing a certain skill (Cornell Notes, close reading, etc.). If there is understanding behind what they are being introduced to and how it can help them in college and career, the more likely they will complete the assignment because they now understand that there is meaning behind what they are doing.

It is important for us to instill in our students the reasons for being good readers and understanding what they read and learn. Our students need to understand that they will use reading in every subject and as lifelong learners. As a teacher, I am constantly researching and implementing productive ways to help my students become better readers. I want them to take ownership in their learning and have always believed that if my students can read well, they can accomplish anything.

Finally, my students are taught that they will NEVER finish what they set out to do because they are lifelong learners who never settle and always work hard. They are always taught not only to dream, but also to act and work hard and their dreams will become a reality.