Hawaii Teacher Hopes To Win $100K In National Education Competition

Patricia Morgan wants to boost Stevenson Middle School’s STEM program and “Innovative Invention Imaginarium.”

By Courtney Teague /
Reading time: 6 minutes.

A leaf blower, a shower curtain, some duct tape, the lid from a Zippy’s to-go container and an old tabletop and chair.

That’s what Patricia Morgan, a science and math teacher at Makiki’s Stevenson Middle School, used to make a hoverboard with her students.

Now she’s the only Hawaii teacher who is one of the 15 finalists nationwide vying for five $100,000 educational grants from Farmers Insurance. If she gets it, she’ll be able to teach more students how to create do-it-yourself hoverboards, use audio engineering software and build arcade games.

Patricia Morgan instructs a student about to take off on the class hoverboard.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Morgan envisions a fundraising craft fair for students to sell their creations and after-school clubs inspired by the TV show “Junkyard Wars,” where computers and other gadgets are built from scratch.

The funding would equip her classroom, which she calls the “Innovative Invention Imaginarium” in her proposal, with new computers, 3D printers, robots, a laser cutting system, video game design software and software used by engineering professionals.

How To Vote

“Dream Big” votes will be accepted through Oct. 29 at this site, and the top five vote-getters will receive $100,000 grants.

To vote for a proposal, click the blue “vote” button under a teacher’s name, and enter your email. You will be sent a link and clicking it registers your vote.

One vote per day is allowed.

Stevenson is a Title I school, which means it receives federal funding because it has a high percentage of students from low-income families. More than half of the school’s 650 students come from families that are at or below the poverty level and might not have access to technology at home, said Principal Linell Dilwith.

The school’s budget doesn’t allow much room for “extras,” she said.

Winning a $100,000 grant for Morgan’s program would be “a huge opportunity for our students and for our student community,” Dilwith said, adding the program could affect students’ career ambitions through hands-on learning.

Patricia Morgan wants her classroom to become the “Innovative Invention Imaginarium.”

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The Farmers Insurance “Dream Big!” grant program is part of its “Thank America’s Teachers” initiative. In addition to the five $100,000 grants, 180 teachers are also competing for $2,500 grants. Since 2014, the company has distributed $3 million in educational grants.

Winners will be announced in December.

Hundreds of teachers applied for the grants. Other finalists’ proposals aim to fight food injustice, protect deteriorating watersheds, and help students learn English as a second language.

More Than ‘Glorified Craft Time’

The daughter of an engineer, Morgan came to teach STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — by chance. A California native, she taught math and science in the state for eight years before moving to Hawaii and teaching math to at-risk students in Laie for one year. Five years ago, she stumbled upon the listing for her current job and decided to give it a shot.

After coming to Stevenson, Morgan grew tired of basic, by-the-book STEM projects, or “glorified craft time,” and started creating her own curriculum, turning to YouTube tutorials as classroom aids.

Her classroom is open to the entire school, not just her own students. When she isn’t teaching, students line up to get inside. Many of them don’t have internet at home.

Maya Uchimura drops a ball in the Rube Goldberg machine, which links multiple small contraptions that create a domino effect.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Morgan has her tricks for getting kids hooked on STEM, even if they aren’t in her regular classes.

She lures them in with giant Jenga blocks, legos, sewing machines, video games, or to make stickers, shirts and other crafts. Then she tries to teach them new skills, like coding or smartphone app design.

In a world that’s increasingly technology driven, such skills are critical for the next generation entering the workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2014 that jobs in the STEM field — like computer programmers or conservation scientists — will grow by about 13 percent from 2012 to 2022.

Former President Barack Obama made investing in STEM classes an administrative priority in January 2016. Though he focused on incorporating STEM classes into high schools, Morgan is trying to teach those concepts at a younger age.

Student Porter Ellis prepares to create a sticker.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Middle school is a tough age to get kids engaged, Morgan said, and students won’t learn if it isn’t fun. And if she isn’t entertained by the lesson herself, she won’t teach it.

Her room may appear well-equipped at first glance, but the cabinets are bare, and the equipment is often refurbished and heavily used. Morgan guessed she and her husband spend at least $4,000 per year on the classroom.

It’s so popular with students that she hopes to expand the space by relocating to two adjoining classrooms.

Morgan recalled teaching one student how to use a sewing machine, then returning to find all the machines occupied.

“Once you teach the kids, they start teaching it to each other. They pay it forward,” she said. “That’s the whole philosophy.”

Her proposal for the “Imaginarium” is built on the idea that it will be self-sustaining. In exchange for getting to use classroom tools, she said middle school students will be expected to eventually serve as high school mentors for younger students. High-schoolers currently help Morgan’s middle school students learn Java coding.

Christian Ellis, a counselor for at-risk students who also works with kids in Morgan’s classroom, said it helps relationship-building and could help lower dropout rates.

“You always hear people say, ‘These kids are the future, they have a lot of problems that they’re going to have to solve for us,’” Morgan said. “That’s great, but what are we doing to make sure they have the tools and the experience so that they can do that?”

View Morgan’s grant proposal here:

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