Sue Dougherty is a self-professed nerd and she wants her students, particularly the girls, to embrace their inner nerds too. She was in touch with that part of herself early, exhibiting a love of math and science as a child.
Dougherty said it was her mother who often fought for her and her four sisters to have the same access to everything from sports to advanced courses in math and science as her three brothers.
Both of her parents valued education and their offspring all went on to obtain advanced degrees, she said. Knowing that every student doesn’t have that kind of advocacy and encouragement, Dougherty makes it her business to let the girls of Stamford High School know they belong in fields that have historically had a “No Girls Allowed” sign on the door.
Dougherty wears a lot of hats when it comes to all things science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She teaches math, chemistry and physics while juggling her duties as department chair for 312 special education students at Stamford High.
But she also is an airplane pilot who is adding flying drones to her repertoire. She’s even worked with NASA scientists and other teacher-pilots to expose her students to potential careers in aviation and aerospace. If all that weren’t enough, she has a degree in economics and used to work for the Federal Reserve in lower Manhattan prior to becoming a teacher.
More than anything, as she enters her 29th year of teaching, what she wants her students to know is that they have what it takes to do these things too.
“It's always part of my working with students,” she said of her own history in STEM, “because I think they accept me because I am what I am.”
She said flying drones – which she admits she crashes on occasion because she’s not “good at that yet” – in class wins her cool points with her students. She said they see her struggling with it and know that just because you’re not good at something now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep at it until you get better.
This kind of transparency opens the door for Dougherty to help students find where STEM intersects with the things they care about most – things that might just change the world. Things like potentially curing cancer.
That’s what an experiment created by a couple of her now former students could do. But first it has to get back from the International Space Station. The experiment created by Lizet Garcia and Rithin Armstrong, while they were Stamford High School students, was launched into space this summer as part of NASA’s Student Spaceflight Experiment Program.
The competitive program draws thousands of proposals each year. Less than three dozen were selected this year. This latest opportunity to send an experiment into space is Stamford High’s second time being selected for that honor. The first time was in 2018.
“I do a lot of programs with NASA,” Dougherty said. “It’s nice for the things that [our students] normally don’t have access to.”
This year, a group of her students have been selected for the Earth, NASA, Globe and Guided Explorations (ENGAGE) Mission Earth program which is hosted by NASA’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Mission Earth scientists and other STEM professionals at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The students are collecting data on climate change that they will get to present at the GLOBE International Virtual Science Symposium this coming spring. The NASA scientists could go on to use the student research in their own work, Dougherty said.
But her students aren’t the only ones getting exposed to STEM in creative ways that spark new ideas and fresh approaches to learning. Dougherty has made sure to take advantage of competitive professional development opportunities for educators that keep her engaged and growing.
Most recently she participated in the Teachers Air Camp at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Dougherty said that thousands of teacher-pilots like her apply to the program. She was one of 31 selected including teachers from as far away as Puerto Rico and Brazil. Dougherty was the only one selected from the East Coast.
“The whole thing of it is that, as teachers, we learned how to expose our students to careers in aviation,” she said. Participating in such a program meant a lot to Dougherty because Stamford High is close to so many airports but the typical student doesn’t see themselves working in aviation.
It's just not anything that they consider. Their parents are not pilots or doctors or, you know, anything in STEM. And that's kind of what I've done my whole teaching career – try to give students pathways into STEM careers.
Dougherty said she started out her career wanting to expose her students to careers in science but she also grew to want to expose her fellow educators to ways they can teach that make science real and relatable to students. She said she hopes her students always remember her fondly but she also hopes that teachers remember her as someone who encouraged them to take a real-world approach to teaching STEM.
“When you do things that are authentic that kids can relate to because it's real numbers – it's not made-up, textbook, numbers or situations – you get a whole different level of engagement,” she said.