Student (and parent) confidence is the largest obstacle facing education. Far too often in a conversation with a student they say, ’My mom/dad was bad at math or science, so I won’t be any good at it either.’ I disagree. I fundamentally believe that all students can do anything they put their minds too.” – Jeff Charbonneau, USA

Jeff Charbonneau - USA
Nov 26

Jeff Charbonneau is on a mission. In fact, he’s been called a “whirlwind on a mission.” And this Washington State Teacher of the Year for 2013 is not afraid to talk about what that mission is: “It is time for the reality of the state of education to be reported on,” he says. “We are not a nation of failing schools. We are a nation of schools that are continually working to improve and adapt to a changing world.”

Charbonneau, who teaches at rural Zillah High School in Central Washington (which also happens to be his alma mater), takes this mission to heart each day as he welcomes his students “back to another day in paradise.” He means it, and his students know it. “When you’re in paradise, you care enough to maintain it, you care enough to put in the sweat equity and the hard work to make sure you can build it up,” says Charbonneau. “That’s why I say, ‘Welcome back to paradise’ every day, because I truly believe that’s where I teach.”

As with so many schools in the U.S. today, funding is a challenge for Zillah High School. But that hasn’t stopped Charbonneau. “Funding challenges permeate every aspect of education,” he says. “However, funding solutions are available to those who are willing to seek them out.  Businesses and industry groups are willing support programs that are relevant and provide feedback.” Charbonneau did just this when he created the Zillah Robot Challenge, which is open to students from across the state. The robot challenge alone has served over 850 students from 43 school districts over the past four years. These opportunities, combined with his innovative instruction, have dramatically increased interest in the sciences at Zillah. This year, over 60 percent of juniors are registered for chemistry and one-third of seniors will take physics. “One of the reasons for the success of the Zillah Robot Challenge is that we ask our supporters to be the judges and support volunteers at our events,” he says. “By being able to witness first-hand the effects of their time and monetary donations, our supporters are more willing to continue their investment.”

All of Charbonneau’s efforts have a common purpose: to help his students excel. In fact, Charbonneau became an adjunct faculty member at Yakima Valley Community College, Central Washington University, and Eastern Washington University — all to give his students the ability to earn college credit in four of his classes. “Within the classroom, I have learned that by setting my expectations higher than I think most would consider ‘high school’ appropriate, students respond by doing even more,” he adds. “Ultimately, by raising the level of rigor in the classroom, students will stay more engaged and be more likely to succeed.” Charbonneau is quick to point out that rigorous, intensive classes should be the norm, not the exception. “More to the point, high schools across the state can also create agreements with colleges and universities in order to offer college credit to students in their schools,” he says. “Not only is this a benefit to the student, but the schools also reap the rewards of having their academically elite stay on campus and be active members of the school climate.”

It’s my pleasure to present Jeff Charbonneau, today’s Daily Edventure.


Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

Over the course of my 12 years of teaching, I have been a proponent for high standards and more access to quality Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) opportunities.  As such, I have worked to create a culture in my school where all students can and will succeed in the advanced sciences.

This has led to my work with Central Washington University (CWU), Eastern Washington University (EWU), and Yakima Valley Community College (YVCC) to increase the rigor of the upper division science courses offered at Zillah High School.  As a result, students in my courses can now earn 10 credits of college physics (through CWU), five credits of chemistry (through EWU) and nine credits of engineering and architecture (through YVCC) without leaving my classroom.  This has been made possible, in part, by creating a high-tech classroom, complete with computer lab, 3-D printer, laser cutter, and more, which allow students to apply their scientific studies to real world scenarios.  However, this technology did not come overnight.  Our school, like most, does not have the funding to create such opportunities.  Instead, funds were secured over time through more than a dozen different grants totaling more than $70,000.  As my career has progressed, the theme of funding as a barrier to educational opportunities has been persistent, if not blatant.  Instead of lamenting that fact, I set out to find a solution to the problem, not only for my own classroom and school, but also for students across the region and state.

In 2007, I began working with several parent volunteers who grouped together to form the Zillah Science Boosters. As a result of that partnership, our mission became clear: we strive to provide hands-on STEM opportunities to any willing student at no cost.  To meet this mission we created the Zillah Robot Challenge.  As part of the Challenge, public, private, alternative and home school students throughout Washington State are loaned a Boe-Bot robotics kit (purchased by the Zillah Science Boosters) at no cost for six to eight weeks.  During that time, they learn the basics of programming and electronics.  All participants then arrive at Zillah High School on competition day where they participate in three different tasks, all of which the robots must perform completely autonomously.  Competition day also features guest speakers from area science and technology businesses or groups, such as the 53rd Explosives Ordinance Division of the U.S. Army who in 2011, not only demonstrated their robots’ abilities for our participants, but also allowed the students to operate them as well.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

At a local level, the enrollment in the chemistry, physics, and engineering programs has increased by more than 20 percent in the last two years alone as a result of our agreements with local colleges.  Fundamentally speaking, by making the courses more challenging, more students have made the decision to enroll.  Ninety-five percent of my physics students from the past four years have gone on to post-secondary education.

On a regional level, as a result of the Zillah Robot Challenge, over 1000 students from more than 70 different school districts have had the opportunity to learn the basics of computer programming and put those skills to use in a real world competition.  Schools from around the state have been able to expand their STEM offerings at no cost by participating in the challenge.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

For many in education “using technology” means having students type a paper.  To me, that is akin to buying a race car to drive to the grocery store.  Effectively applying technology to education means much more than typing papers.  It means using the right tool, at the right time to make learning more meaningful.

I use technology constantly in my work, but rarely is it used the same way from one class period to the next.  In my engineering courses, my students use CAD software to create 3-dimensional designs.  In an ideal world, students would be able to take these models from the computer to the production line.  So I sought out a solution to do just that.  Unfortunately, 3-d printers have traditionally been outside the range of school budgets (easily in the tens of thousands of dollars).  However, the open source RepRap project has designs for machines at a fraction of the cost.  With my own experience in 3-d printing being limited to reading about it on the Internet, I turned my search into a class project.  My students were asked to research, propose budgets for, and ultimately help select the 3-d printer that now resides in my classroom (a RepRap inspired model from Bits-From-Bytes).  My students take great pride in sharing their plastic-extruded creations in the hallways and around the dinner table at home.

Because of the 3-d printer, my students became inspired to learn more.  Technology allowed them to bridge the gap between the abstract mathematics and physics of the traditional classroom, to the creation of useable, relevant applications.  I find the device as less a tool to teach technology, but more as a tool to teach connections.

Technology allows me to connect the different subjects I teach in ways that were impractical, if not impossible, just a few years ago.  Physics and chemistry students not only perform traditional experiments in my lab, but also conduct multiple online simulations at sites like Phet.colorado.edu.

And yes, occasionally, they do type up a term paper.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Student (and parent) confidence is the largest obstacle facing education.  Far too often in a conversation with a student they say, “My mom/dad was bad at math or science, so I won’t be any good at it either.”  I disagree.  I fundamentally believe that all students can do anything they put their minds to.  Unfortunately, they have built up a belief that they are not good at certain subjects – most often math and science – that leads to a self-created prophecy.  Students who think they will fail most often do.  As such, my greatest obstacle in education is not the content, the delivery, or the materials.  My greatest obstacle is student self-confidence.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

I believe that schools are actually doing a much better job of educating students than most media sources suggest.  Last year (2011-2012), every senior at Zillah High School passed their state mandated tests (HSPE) in reading, writing and math.  This means that ZHS accomplished one of the primary goals of the education reform movement that started over 20 years ago – they passed a state level exam, demonstrating competency in subject matter.  Earlier this school year, it was announced that Washington State students tied with Vermont for the highest average test scores on the SAT.

We are not a nation of failing schools.  There are countless examples across our state, region, and nation of student success.

Is there room for us to grow?  Certainly.  The best part about education is that we will always strive for improvement.  However, there has been much more positive growth in education in the last 20 plus years than most people realize.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

If, as a teacher, all I ever did was tell my students what they were doing wrong and never told them what they were doing right, what do you think would happen to those students’ success over time?

It’s time for us to step forward with a positive outlook on the state of education in this country. The unrelenting theme is that many Americans have lost faith in our schools—but that is only because our society has become far too focused on what is wrong, while ignoring what is working in education.

So much has been reported about failing scores on state tests that the public believes most students fail these tests and that states have made little progress. The truth is very different. In Washington State, over 80 percent of students passed the reading and writing assessments last year. Ten years ago only 50 percent of students passed. Science scores, though not yet a graduation requirement, have increased by 10 percent in the last four years.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Well over 80 percent of the student body in my school has more computing power in their pockets than my PC did in college in 1998.  That is where the next great innovation is waiting.  The first group of educators to effectively harness the power of the smart phone for academic pursuits will lead the next phase of technology innovation in education.  Now, to be fair, I know of several educators trying to do just that within their classrooms.  However, there has yet to be an easy, reliable, and scalable technique that is ready to be on the forefront of education.  I do believe that it will be here soon.  As educators, we will need to abandon our fear of mobile computing devices (cell phones, tablets, etc.) as they are far too powerful a tool to be ignored.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

The single most important thing that a person can do to help a student is to believe in them, above all else.  The courses I teach all count for college credit – as such I am pretty big on content and rigor in my courses.  However, the most difficult thing I do during the day has nothing to do with content; it is trying to teach students to believe in themselves and then allow them opportunities to show what they can do.

New teachers: do not let content drive your decisions.  Ask first, what needs do my students have? Second, what tools will allow me to address these needs? And finally, what can my students do to showcase their learning? By the time you get to the end of those questions, you will have created learning opportunities full of content and with enough rigor to impress even yourself.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Screencasting and video blogs of lessons are an excellent tool for teachers and their students.  I think it holds the most weight when the screencast is done by the actual teacher of the class, rather than by another teacher or source (such as Kahn Academy).  While Kahn videos certainly can be useful, I find that my students get the most value out of hearing my voice, as it gives a better sense of continuity to the class.  However, I feel that to be effective, these videos should be used as reinforcement to hands-on activities conducted in the classroom.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

The power to believe that you can do anything.  There is no greater tool in this world than belief.

About Jeff Charbonneau

  • Birthplace: Santa Rosa, California
  • Current residence: Zillah, Washington
  • Education: B.A. Biology Teaching, Central Washington University; Masters of Education – Master Teacher, Central Washington University; National Board Certification in Adolescence and Young Adult Science
  • Website I check every day: Google News, Lookout Landing (Seattle Mariners Fans), Ted.com
  • Person who inspires me most: My children – they see the joy in discovery.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Watching the jets fly overhead at the Yakima Air Fair in the late 1980’s.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Leavenworth, Washington for a short family vacation.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? This morning.  I have a 6-year-old son and a 3-year-daughter – they make me laugh everyday (usually at myself).
  • Favorite book: Far too many to pick a single one.  However, I am fascinated by science in the late 19th and early 20th century related to development of quantum theory.  A recent favorite was A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford by Richard Reeves.
  • Favorite music: For inspiration I listen to the “Braveheart” sound track or other Celtic music.  For relaxation I enjoy a wide range from country to rock.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “Welcome back to another day in paradise.”
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