“Culture trumps everything,” says Robin Fisher, superintendent and chief academic officer of the Dayton Regional STEM School in Kettering. At her school, “culture building happens first, so that learning and personal growth can occur.” And that culture – called ACE, for Accepting Culture for Everyone – fosters empathy, self-worth, respect, kindness and care so that students feel safe enough to take risks, she says.
Fisher was named the 2023 winner of the inaugural Outstanding Service Award, given by the Ohio STEM Learning Network to honor an individual who goes above and beyond their role to advance access to quality STEM education for all Ohio students. The STEM Excellence Awards are issued annually to teachers, leaders, and partnerships as part of the Ohio STEM Innovation Summit.
Fisher, a former microbiologist, was a founding staff member of the Dayton Regional STEM School. In her current role there, she has expanded academic offerings and advanced STEM throughout the Dayton region and the state. To find out more about her school and her accomplishments, we asked her a few questions:
Q: Tell us about your school, its mission and the community that it serves.
A: The Dayton Regional STEM School is an independent, public STEM school. We opened in 2009 and just completed our 14th year of operation. Our school’s mission is to prepare and inspire the next generation of leaders and innovators.
We serve students in grades six-12 from more than 30 districts and as many as nine counties. Any student in Ohio can apply for the lottery-based admission. Our plan is to expand our offerings to elementary grades in the near future. We build our STEM pathway offerings based on the workforce needs of the region.
The Dayton Regional STEM School was built through a massive community initiative led by numerous regional leaders who were passionate about bringing STEM education to the area. Thought leaders from business, industry, K-12 education, higher education and government entities joined forces to make the school a reality. Because of this collaborative effort there is strong community support.
Q: What is your educational philosophy and how do you put it into practice at your school?
A: My educational philosophy is centered on creating experiences for students that result in learning that lasts. I believe that as educators we should strive to create personalized learning opportunities for students that address different learning styles, interests and strengths. Students need to be engaged in work that matters to them and that provides a direct connection to real world applications.’
At the Dayton Regional STEM School, we strive to achieve these goals through Project Based Learning (PBL) and inquiry based classroom experiences. In PBL, students learn critical content and develop professional competencies by working in teams to create a product or solution connected to a tangible need.
External partner connections are critical to our program as they bring authenticity and content expertise to the learning experience.
Q: In her award nomination application for you, Stephanie Adams Taylor, your colleague at the Dayton Regional STEM School, said, “Dr. Fisher models collaboration, risk-taking and a deep commitment to students, which trickles down to our entire STEM community.” How do you think you exemplify such traits in your work?
A: I am humbled by this statement, and I can only hope to live up to this standard. At STEM we have always encouraged a risk-taking culture. I work to build this attitude in our staff by celebrating new ideas and initiatives. I believe that through risk taking our community grows and feels a sense of accomplishment.
Trying new ideas keeps us fresh and builds the five qualities that we aspire to improve on every day – persistence, inquiry, communication, collaboration and creativity.
We are stronger as a community because of collaboration. Our successes are shared successes because of the synergistic nature of our work model. After leaving a meeting, the lines are often blurred on who had an idea because of the myriad voices that join to create a collective solution or strategy. This is fostered through engrained practices that allow for feedback and group decision making. Examples include team meetings, surveys, open space meetings and an open-door policy.
Our whole model is built on student success and a student-first attitude. As we are making decisions and plans for the future, the student experience and student outcomes are our primary concerns. As a school administrator, I seek to model this by reminding our staff of our sole purpose. We are here to help students discover their passion and purpose and to instill in them the skills to use their talents in an effective and collaborative way.
OSLN Excellence Awards accepting nominations until Feb. 5, 2024
Q: How do you promote the idea of “STEM for All” and breaking down barriers for underserved populations?
A: As a former STEM professional, I was able to witness the barriers that exist for some populations that make it difficult to access a STEM education. When I heard about the plans to open a STEM-focused school in the Dayton area, I was so excited to dream about the possibilities and how we just might be able to open doors for those who may not have had the opportunity otherwise.
I regret that we are not able to serve every student that applies to STEM, but we have created strategies to expand our reach to those in underserved areas. Once a student is at our school, we provide opportunities to all to explore STEM subjects and experiences to increase their self-confidence and interest in STEM disciplines.
Perhaps there will be an opportunity for all students to attend a STEM-focused program or school in the future. In the meantime, we will do all that we can to expand our programming and advocate for increased accessibility in the future.
Q: Adams Taylor also said that your motto is “culture trumps everything.” Explain this in relation to education.
A: During my years working in education, I am constantly reminded that if the culture is not welcoming and if students do not feel safe to take risks, nothing else matters. For this reason, I often use the phrase “culture trumps everything” as a reminder that we need to consistently build and protect our school culture, or the rest will not be possible. Culture building happens first, so that learning and personal growth can occur.
At STEM, we focus on developing an ACE (Accepting Culture for Everyone) culture. We have a team of individuals who create intentional plans to build empathy, self-worth, respect, kindness and care. Culture permeates our conversations and reflections, so that any breaks in our culture result in a swift call to action of our entire school community.
Q: During your time at the Dayton Regional STEM School, which accomplishments have given you the most satisfaction?
A: I have worked at the Dayton Regional STEM School for 14 years and am able to reflect on many accomplishments this community has achieved, so it is a bit hard to answer this question.
One success that stands out is the development of our career pathways and career development program. Through numerous iterations and a team of many, we have honed our practices over the years to build experiences that will help our students discover the career pathway that fits their passions, talents and values.
The journey begins when they enter STEM and includes experiences each year so that, by the time they graduate, the students have a clearer path for their future. Some key components include career fairs, job shadowing, internships, experiential learning, simulated work environments, robust partner involvement, digital student portfolios and routine student reflections. We reflect on our program annually and make changes with the support of our community partners.
Another accomplishment that gives me satisfaction is the partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Gaming Research Integration for Learning Laboratory (GRILL). It took almost 10 years to achieve our goal of collocating the Air Force laboratory in our school, marking the first partnership of this kind in the country.
The GRILL and our school share a passion for STEM outreach to inspire the next generation of STEM professionals. The GRILL’s mission is to conduct integration efforts and training research using game-based technology to increase the operational efficiency and effectiveness of the people defending our nation. The collaboration opportunities have provided real world learning experiences for our students. We can’t wait to see where this partnership will go in the future.
Q: How have you shown leadership in the Dayton area in fostering other partnerships with your school and in growing STEM education in the community and beyond?
A: The Dayton region is such a collaborative community. Because of this, I have been given the opportunity to interact with leaders from higher education, business, industry and government entities. The support they have all shown for STEM education has been instrumental to our success as a school.
Our school was established with a firm commitment to external partnerships. My role has been to ensure that we maintain an outward reaching mentality knowing that this creates a better learning experience for our students, provides enrichment opportunities for our staff and makes our overall community stronger.
To support strong partnerships in the Dayton region, I serve on the DO STEM Ecosystem Council and am an active participant in Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce events. In conjunction with the previously mentioned Stephanie Adams Taylor, our director of strategic partnerships, we remain outwardly focused to facilitate conversation about STEM education and STEM workforce development to make the Dayton region and Ohio stronger.
I also serve as an honorary commander of the 88th Air Base Wing located at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. This program was started by base leadership to create strong partnerships with the Air Force. I try to lead by example knowing that partnerships add synergy to the important work that needs to be done in the world of STEM.
Q: How do you help your faculty and staff members with professional development opportunities?
A: We strive to make staff professional development personalized and on mission. Each year our evaluation process includes establishing school-wide goals that are aligned with our strategic plan. In addition, we work with each staff member to design professional development specific to their interests and needs.
We offer a lot of PBL professional development in-house, but we also send staff to other locations when necessary. Outside presenters and facilitators are also secured to help everyone meet their PD goals for the year.
Q: In your years as an educator and administrator, what are the most valuable lessons you have learned from students, professional colleagues, parents and/or community members?
A: One important lesson I have learned from my interactions with all stakeholders is that the answer is almost always in the middle. What I mean is, when arguments occur, or there are disagreements over how something should be handled, or the most effective next steps, or who is at fault, one will find the answer somewhere between the two, or more, perspectives.
I have found this to be true when working with all stakeholders. This perspective helps me to remember to hear everyone out before rushing to judgment or moving forward with an action.
Another important lesson that I learned from our students is that they are amazingly creative, insightful and ready to take on difficult challenges. We can often forget to ask their perspective when designing curriculum or changing schedules or even facility modification. I am always inspired by the ideas they generate and the variables that they consider that didn’t even cross our minds.
Q: What advice would you give other STEM educators and administrators?
A: My advice would be to keep innovating, open the next door, seek out the next potential partner, do something that scares you just a bit. Try something that hasn’t been done before if you feel that your students will be excited about the opportunity.
It is through momentum and failing forward together that we form communities of wonder, exploration and continuous growth. Complacency is the enemy of good education. When you are tired and need a break, take one. And when you come back, be daring again.