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Time Magazine's 'Most Innovative Teachers' Lead with STEM

Recognized by TIME magazine as one of the country's most innovative teachers, Joann Blumenfeld of Raleigh created programs for students with disabilities to find STEM careers and learn about geospatial technologies.

Robot Teaching
(TNS) — Raleigh teacher Joann Blumenfeld wants her students to live in a world “that doesn’t set limitations on what they can do,” particularly when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math.

“I’ve always said, ‘It’s not the kid, it’s the box,‘” Blumenfeld said. “We have to create a new box, that’s the real key.”

Blumenfeld set out to create a “new box” through two programs that help students with disabilities gain skills and experiences to have successful careers in STEM.

Last week, she earned national recognition when TIME magazine named her one of 10 of the most “innovative” teachers in the country. The educators were selected out of hundreds of nominations for “going above and beyond to improve learning experiences for kids who need it, and solving problems schools face today.”

Five years ago, Blumenfeld created Catalyst, a program for high school students with any disability and a desire to work in STEM. She also leads GIST, a program that helps ninth and 10th grade students with autism learn about geospatial technologies, including drone piloting.

Blumenfeld, 60, worked as a special education teacher for more than 20 years in Wake County Public Schools in Pre-K through 12th grade. In those years, she taught at Longview School, Dillard Drive Middle School and Brentwood Elementary School. She also led a special education pre-school at Shaw University. Before working full-time in the Catalyst program, Blumenfeld taught at Broughton Magnet High School.

Nearly 26 percent of the United States population has a disability, according to statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was a “red flag” when Blumenfeld first learned about the statistic. In North Carolina, that number is well over 200,000, she said.

“That’s millions of people. We’re doing a huge disservice,” Blumenfeld said. “I firmly believe that everyone should contribute to society and everyone has a purpose.”

About 80 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Times are changing, Blumenfeld said, and more companies are diversifying their workforce.

“We want parents to see their kids are breadwinners and not as somebody they have to support,” Blumenfeld said. “I think employers are starting to realize these kids have a lot of great skill sets.”


Students in the Catalyst program spend nearly four years in labs conducting research, participating in STEM field trips and mentoring opportunities. Catalyst, which is also a partnership with NC State in The Science House, consists of a one-week summer session and several Saturday sessions during the school year and a paid internship opportunity in either the research or engineering labs at the university.

“My goal is to get them ready for the STEM workforce and also to get them ready for college,” Blumenfeld said. “And also helping them with self-advocacy skills. We really believe in kids.”

There is also a trip. This year, students are headed to Houston, Blumenfeld said.

“We’ve been invited by NASA at the Johnson Space Center,” she said. “They’re doing a special program just for us and they’re very interested in showing the kids that they too can be included.”

With GIST, kids take part in a weeklong summer session and during the school year, participate in 20 one-on-one lessons and eight Saturday classes at NC State to learn to fly drones. The end goal is for students to get their license to operate drones.

“They have a lot of drone programs around the country but we’d like to have one that specifically meets students with autism’s needs,” Blumenfeld said.

Between GIST and Catalyst, Blumenfeld said students need three things to be successful: STEM and workforce readiness skills, companies to hire more people with disabilities, and changing the mindsets of people to believe in them.

The first group of students from Catalyst in 2014 just graduated college from UNC-Chapel Hill, Appalachian State, NC State and Wake Technological Community College. Students who finish the program and high school also attend UNC-Pembroke, Northeastern University and William Peace University.

After school, the kids go on to work in a range of STEM fields or pursue more degrees, Blumenfeld said. Many of them eventually earn paid internships with companies like SAS, Fidelity, Biogen and IBM.

Catalyst has won four national awards, including the National 2017 Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam Competition, and has earned recognition from politicians like Gov. Roy Cooper and former President Barack Obama.


Blumenfeld, who is certified to teach science, said she wants to see her students determined to do things for themselves and to live in a world that doesn’t set limitations on what they can do.

“A lot of people tell people with disabilities what they need instead of letting them use their own voice,” she said. “People talk a lot about diversity but you can’t just think, you’ve got to do.”

Blumenfeld said she wants to see more programs like Catalyst and GIST created around the country.

“This is not about me, this is about the kids,” she said.

While working in public schools, Blumenfeld said she wrote several grants to get money for students with disabilities. Her budget was $1.58 per student per year for supplies, she said.

“If we aren’t giving (people with disabilities) skill sets for them to be employable, we’re not helping these kids enough,” she said. “If they want to be nuclear engineers, we need to give them the skills to do that.”

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