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Wildwood School tech teacher Kathryn Runyan has found the magic touch

  • Kathryn Runyan, the instructional technology teacher at Wild Wood Elementary school in Amherst, works with Maddy McDowell, 7, during class Friday morning.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Kathryn Runyan, the instructional technology teacher at Wild Wood Elementary school in Amherst, works with Maddy McDowell, 7, during class Friday morning.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kathryn Runyan, the instructional technology teacher at Wild Wood Elementary school in Amherst, teaching a second grade class Friday morning.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Kathryn Runyan, the instructional technology teacher at Wild Wood Elementary school in Amherst, teaching a second grade class Friday morning.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>Kathryn Runyan, the instructional technology teacher at Wild Wood Elementary school in Amherst, teaching a second grade class Friday morning.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS


    Kathryn Runyan, the instructional technology teacher at Wild Wood Elementary school in Amherst, teaching a second grade class Friday morning.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kathryn Runyan, the instructional technology teacher at Wild Wood Elementary school in Amherst, works with Maddy McDowell, 7, during class Friday morning.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Kathryn Runyan, the instructional technology teacher at Wild Wood Elementary school in Amherst, teaching a second grade class Friday morning.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • <br/>Kathryn Runyan, the instructional technology teacher at Wild Wood Elementary school in Amherst, teaching a second grade class Friday morning.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

The opening days of school are hectic for every teacher, but for Wildwood Elementary’s Kathryn Runyan they were so off-the-charts-busy she needed changes of clothes.

“I knew I’d be sweating,” she said.

The usual hubbub of getting students back at their desks after summer vacation was punctuated by trainings and meetings and getting new procedures in place, but in Runyan’s case it also meant being the focus of a ceremony after the teachers’ assembly Aug. 28 where she received the Roger L. Wallace Excellence in Teaching award. And it meant squeezing in time to talk to me about that.

Runyan, who has been teaching computer technology for 11 years, was lauded with the award named for one of Amherst’s most inspirational teachers because of how she helps students use computers to augment their work, how she targets science, technology, engineering and math, and for encouraging girls in those areas.

Wallace, who retired after 38 years teaching elementary school in Amherst, was at the presentation, where Runyan also received a $750 stipend.

“I just want you to know you’re going to get a visitor,” he told her. “I want to see you teach. I hear you’re the bomb.”

“I hope you catch me on a good day,” she responded with a laugh.

Runyan’s room, one of the first classrooms you see after you check in at the Wildwood office, is ringed with 25 computer stations with big flat-screen monitors. There is a large Smartboard on the wall near her desk and shelves stuffed with books and plastic bins filled with Lego blocks, tiny motors and other intriguing parts. It’s those Legos that help her draw the students’ attention to science, technology and math.

They are used to design and build robots that kick and race and launch things, for instance. Students measure distance, velocity and speed, and then chart and graph and analyze. And they have fun doing it.

“There are so many ways of being creative with them,” she said. “These are basically engineering projects. The students are figuring out how to put something together based on some criteria and then seeing how it works.”

But her classes aren’t just all Legos and science, there are Google Earth and Trudy’s Time and Place House programs for geography, and Scratch, programming language that students can use to make videos and animation projects for history and language arts and other subject areas. At the end of the year, sixth-graders used Scratch to create a presentation about themselves for their graduation ceremony.

“She’s innovating in ways that are really special,” said Charlie Schweik, a University of Massachusetts faculty member who had sixth-grade twins at Wildwood last year. He nominated Runyan for the Wallace award.

Schweik said the Scratch project was just one of the ways Runyan goes beyond the expected curriculum, to expose students to STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — education and give “all the kids in the school the ability to try to think about computing and logic, all the things that come into programming.”

This year, Runyan will have each of the school’s classes for 40 minutes a week.

“One of the really cool things about this job is I get to touch on a lot of different topics through all the grade levels,” she said.

But with the nationwide concern about building student interest in the sciences, especially among girls, the Legos have given her one of her best tools.

She has gotten students involved in an after-school Lego robotics club and from that has created teams of fifth- and sixth-graders that participate in the nationwide competitions sponsored by the toy manufacturer. Last year she fielded teams of girls and boys with 10 members each. The girls made it to the state level and even though they didn’t fare so well there, that was OK as far as she was concerned.

“It was a great experience because they got to see that even if we do everything almost exactly the same sometimes the results are a little bit different,” she said. “Like the friction of the mats, or if the positioning is off a fraction of a centimeter, it will change the speed of the robot in a challenge.”

Her work with those groups, which grew way beyond the expected number of participants, and the extra time she put in after school and on weekends, got Schweik’s attention, too. His children were members of the teams and he helped coach them.

“I was amazingly impressed with her enthusiasm, her nature with the kids, how she interacts with the kids,” he said. “The confidence they gain is just phenomenal.”

Runyan’s already started to gather her troops for this year’s teams. In fact she had a meeting planned for 5:30 p.m., right after our interview, which made for a very long first day of school.

She has used her experiences to give presentations to groups that advocate for girls’ achievement like Girls Inc. and Girls Connect to describe how she has gotten girls interested.

Not with the new lines Lego is introducing for them: sets with pink and purple parts and names like Stephanie’s Backyard Bakery and Stephanie’s Cool Convertible. Runyan says she has nothing against the themes if they draw interest from girls who aren’t attracted by the typical Star Wars and pirate scenes. But she thinks the approach is unnecessary. “I don’t think you have to pink and purple it up,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the colors pink and purple, but I don’t think you have to make it all about fashion and stuff like that to get girls’ attention.”

What it takes, in her view, is enthusiasm, examples of women who are out in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. “It’s people showing them and giving them an opportunity to try things and not giving up saying, ‘oh, you’re not interested, then don’t worry about it.”

That’s where she comes in.

Runyan, 38, pointed out that she never took physics in high school in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she grew up, something she regrets. The physics class was nearly all boys, she said. Girls weren’t encouraged to take it.

Now she nudges girls toward the sciences. “I at least try to get them started. I try to show them there are different opportunities and that you don’t have to be super competitive,” she said. “Collaboration is a huge part of engineering, sharing what you’ve got, sharing what you know, sharing your successes and failures.”

The girls respond.

Some on her robotics team have told her they now like to bypass the directions in the Legos sets to make their own projects. “One girl was great. Her father is an engineer and she said ‘I always thought it would be weird to have more than one engineer in the family, but now I don’t think it’s going to be that weird.’ ”

Runyan started out with a journalism degree from Boston University. She quickly decided that wasn’t the field for her and went back to school for a master’s degree in education. She taught sixth grade in Watertown for a year and even though the computer lab there had only six computers, she made good use of them, she said.

She came to Amherst in 2002 and taught fourth grade. That year the technology teacher was leaving and asked her if she was interested in stepping in. “It took me a while to think about it and then it was like, you know what? Yeah!”

Professional development has been hands on: trial and error, tutorials, reading lots of books, using the help button and asking questions.

Runyan, whose husband, Greg Runyan, is a dean at Amherst Regional High School, took a year off in 2007 to work as a carpenter’s helper. She needed a break, she said, not from teaching, but from school district politics.

So, how did it feel to be called ‘the bomb,’ by the legendary Roger Wallace?

She grimaces slightly.

“I don’t know. I always second guess myself,” she said. “I try to explain things clearly, I hope, and try to make things fun, I hope. I know it’s not always clear and it’s not always fun. But I push, push, push, until I learn ’em something good. I want them to have every opportunity that I can fit into my 40 minutes a week. I pour my heart into it, and at least sometimes my sweat.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.

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