Women are seriously underrepresented in STEM occupations and still suffer from the ‘not for girls’ stereotype. STEM education improves critical thinking and enables innovation. Breaking the stereotype of girls’ work vs. men’s work is long overdue.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Jennifer Winward. Dr. Winward earned her Ph.D. from UC San Diego with a dual emphasis in Neuroscience and Developmental Neuropsychology — studying adolescent brain development and adolescent learning. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude (top 1%) with highest distinction honors. She is now a renowned teaching professor at UC San Diego, a distinguished 20-year veteran of high school tutoring, and the founder and CEO of Winward Academy. Dr. Winwardhas been widely recognized for her academic success, published research, and service efforts with awards from the President of the United States, the California State Assembly, Rotary International, the Marin County School Administrator Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Science Foundation. She was recently honored as San Diego’s most influential education leader, as Top 40 Under 40 in San Diego, as Top 35 Under 35 nationally, and as a Top 5 Female Entrepreneur.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Sure, I would love to. I have known that I wanted to teach since high school when I created an after-school peer tutoring program and worked with my favorite teacher and mentor, Mr. Skip Lovelady, to create a Teacher Education high school curriculum. Through college and graduate school, I developed a significant private tutoring practice, helping high schoolers prepare for college entrance exams and college applications. One day, as I was helping a student with his Calculus homework, his mom Carol walked into the kitchen and said something that inspired the creation of Winward Academy. She told her son that he was born on third base sliding into home, and that the students she taught in South Central Los Angeles — who were equally deserving, smart, and hard-working — could go their entire lives fighting for a chance at bat. That discussion led to my redirecting my career from private tutoring to a career focused on education equity and to the founding of Winward Academy.
As a tribute to Carol, who was lost to ovarian cancer in January 2017, Winward Academy honors her vision every day with our philanthropic partnerships and with the creation of a college scholarship in her honor. We’re making sure more students have a chance at bat and hopefully hit a home run.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In the Fall of 2017, I was approached about an inner-city school in Newark using Winward Academy. The school’s rising seniors were understandably frustrated — over the previous year, they had tried five different test prep programs for the ACT, but their scores had not significantly improved. Worse, the lack of improvement was impacting their confidence.
I was thrilled to get to work with the students immediately. There was no time to spare — the seniors’ last chance to take the ACT was just six weeks away. School staff converted the football storage closet into a space for students to access the Winward Academy platform each day. Because the students only had a limited time before the ACT (students normally study at least four months for a standardized test), I handpicked ten high-impact lessons on which to focus.
The strategy paid off, brilliantly. 94% of students grew their scores with English scores rising by 3.5 points, math by 2.0, reading by 3.4, and science by 3.0. Beyond these numbers, lives were changed, trajectories were altered.
People frequently hear the story and say these students reached their potential, but that wouldn’t be accurate. The truth is, they’re just getting started.
Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I started this journey wholeheartedly committed to recreating the student-centered, super personalized experience students have in-person with private tutors. I went into the development process thinking software engineers would know how to honor that mission. What I didn’t realize was that the standard in software is to force software onto a human experience instead of using a human experience to guide software development.
The journey to find the right team involved many bumps along the way, but ultimately I learned to stay true to the mission and that the right people would emerge. We now have an exceptional team, one committed to the idea that technology should be a tool but should never be a teacher.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The core company initiative is to transform all students’ academic and professional development. Doing so involves partnering with elite schools while not overlooking the needs of local community groups and after-school programs that serve youth facing challenges of frequent moves, illness, foster care, trauma, and poverty.
To achieve our philanthropic mission, we are blessed to work closely with nonprofits and foundations supporting underserved communities. Our biggest current project is working with one such group to develop a college coach training program that would be available to school counselors, teachers, and parents in Promise neighborhoods around the country. The goal of this project is to make sure that all mentors interacting with youth have the training and knowledge to support students in their paths to and through college with everything ranging from filling out applications, to writing authentic and impactful personal statements, to developing resumes and preparing for interviews, to making financially informed decisions about college.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
As I mentioned, I began my career in education in high school, developing a Teachers Education curriculum, teaching 6th period pre-calculus at my high school, and building a peer tutoring program. Since then, I have been immersed in the world of high schoolers preparing for college. I feel confident saying that no one knows the details of the ACT, the SAT, and the college application process better than I.
I am also an expert in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning, so every detail of Winward Academy’s development connects to 40 years of research about how teens learn.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
As with most serious questions, the answer is it depends. The U.S. is the world’s most accomplished innovator, the home of Nobel Laureates and of world changing medical and technology breakthroughs.
Yet the U.S. education system suffers tremendous inequality and has only shown decreasing English and Math scores in the past decade. I frequently quote Georgetown economists Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl who stated that, “If the SAT were a 100-yard dash, disadvantaged students start ’65 yards behind.’”
As we celebrate our innovation and creativity, we must also recognize these realities and disparities, both of which are cause for concern and action.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- The American Dream is alive and well in U.S. education. A student with the drive to succeed and the willingness to work hard, who also takes advantage of resources available, can achieve greatness.
- U.S. education promotes critical thinking and the ability to logically analyze. Curriculum standards are continually reviewed and assessed to identify areas for improvement.
- Numerous options exist for schooling so that parents can match their student to a school featuring a teaching method that will work best for their child. The range is large: public, private, religious, charter, military, home, Montessori, Waldorf, or STEM-focused.
- Abundance of both government programs and of philanthropy from individuals and non-profits provides resources and support for deserving students who wouldn’t otherwise have access.
- Students who don’t feel safe can’t learn. The training of school teachers and administrators on threat assessment and threat management is becoming mandatory in a growing number of states.
While we still have a ways to go, it is important to recognize and appreciate what is going well. We should continue to explore and nurture these strengths as we also recognize areas for growth and improvement. The national dialogue is currently focused on education equity, which will continue to move us in the right direction.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
I advocate for these five strategies to improve classrooms:
- Recognize the issue: before we can improve outcomes, people must first recognize the well-researched disparities that exist in access to resources.
- Utilize the most effective research-based learning strategies: students need to be encouraged to learn from their mistakes and to paraphrase what they learn into their own words.
- Use thoughtful technology to aid students’ academics and to ease workload of teachers: ed-tech solutions should be the student-centric application of technology to education, not vice versa.
- Track outcomes: any additional resources incorporated into a classroom environment must be measured to ensure empirical success.
- Embrace personalization: students need immediate personalized feedback on all questions based on their unique learning needs, and every opportunity to provide such personalization must be promoted.
These changes are critical to bring growth to our students’ skills, content knowledge and confidence. Our students deserve the best, and we must stay constantly committed to strategies that improve experiences both inside and outside the classroom — for students, for teachers, and for families.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
STEM occupations are growing at almost double the rate of non-STEM occupations. It is critical to focus education programs on expanding interest in STEM. Programs should focus on (1) awareness (what is STEM and what are STEM occupations), (2) hands-on experience (working on STEM based projects), and (3) mentoring (providing interaction with role models in STEM occupations).
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Women are seriously underrepresented in STEM occupations and still suffer from the ‘not for girls’ stereotype. STEM education improves critical thinking and enables innovation. Breaking the stereotype of girls’ work vs. men’s work is long overdue. That’s precisely why we partner with Women In Bio and Young Women In Bio — two national organizations that promote STEM experiences for young women — to organize STEM symposiums to expose middle and high school girls to consummate female leaders in STEM fields. We open these free events to local schools and to Girl Scout troops to inspire their interest in STEM and give them professional opportunities to network and ask questions about pathways to success.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The drive for awareness, hands-on experience, and mentoring is essential to increase engagement but also requires flexibility to ensure all students have access to these opportunities. As I mentioned, Winward Academy partners with Young Women in Bio specifically to promote and engage girls in STEM subjects. We are expanding these programs to ensure they’re available at scale and to young women who are unable to attend the in-person events. We’re now filming these panels and making them available through our learning platform, so that schools and individual students can benefit from this knowledge, which provides both awareness and role models for young women. This curriculum is provided to science departments at all our partner schools to bring the experiences to life in students’ classrooms.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
One of our Winward Academy education experts, Sheena Ghanbari, Ed.D., wrote an article for our families titled Value of Art in Science and Math Education: A Case for STEAM Education. She opens by quoting Leonardo da Vinci:
– Study the science of art
– Study the art of science
– Develop your senses, especially learn how to see
– Realize that everything connects to everything else
Extant research has documented the numerous positive effects of art on learning. Those benefits range from heightened critical thinking skills, to well-reasoned risk-taking, to more decisive behavior. I fully endorse programs that integrate the arts into STEM. We should wholeheartedly focus on expanding students’ minds in all areas.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I love this question because it reminds me of one posed to me during my Ph.D. dissertation defense. One of my committee members asked me what I would do if I had a magic wand and unlimited resources to reform our education system. Interestingly, what I shared with the committee 10 years ago and what I’d say today are the same, which certainly reinforces the need for progress.
- There are myriad philanthropists and non-profits who contribute to education equity initiatives. We need a formalized way to connect schools with documented needs to these individuals and organizations to fill those resource gaps.
- We must establish a well-defined, fact-based methodology for determining resources needed by schools. Data such as that developed by Sean Reardon and the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford might be incorporated into the methodology.
- We absolutely need better training, better recognition, and better pay for excellent teachers. They have one of the most emotionally draining and challenging careers, and we can’t risk losing the great ones. Teacher attrition is a serious problem, and when teachers leave within 1–2 years of starting at a school, it’s impossible to build consistent school culture, and schools lose that investment they made in training and onboarding.
- We must develop programs that help students determine the best path for after high school, whether it’s college, trade school, junior college, or the military. As adult mentors responsible for supporting and shaping students’ lives, we must listen so they’ll talk and also talk so they’ll listen. Only then will we ensure we’re supporting each student on his or her unique pathway to success.
- I worry about students’ writing skills. I consistently interact with college students who ask for points back on a midterm because what they wrote for their short answer isn’t what they meant. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. People don’t get “do-overs” in their written communication. Clearly, professional writing skills are essential, and students need more support to develop this skill.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A teacher affects eternity — you can never tell where his influence stops.” At the completion of the Teacher Education class I took my senior year of high school, the teacher Mr. Lovelady asked each student to choose a favorite quote. At 16-years-old, I chose this quote by Henry Adams. Interestingly, the quote that drove my life at 16 continues to shape everything that matters to me. The influence of a great teacher really does last for eternity, and all students deserve access to learning experiences that build their skills and their confidence in ways that last a lifetime. Specific to ACT and SAT prep, I always tell families that preparation for those exams should not just be about a 4-hour test students take when they’re 16 or 17. It’s about building life-long skills and passion for learning that really shape how students learn. That’s what will have an unstoppable influence.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would be honored to have breakfast or lunch with Carrie Walton Penner, a K-12 education advocate passionate about education research, evaluation, and advocacy. She and I share a passion to improve access to high-quality learning experiences for every child. I’d love to chat with her about her experience as a leader in philanthropic giving and her research into effective learning. I’d also be privileged to share my ideas about education equity and to brainstorm specific, meaningful ways we can make a bigger impact together.
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!