Clear Creek teacher STEAMing into the future
When Tom Erickson was growing up, he watched his mom, an elementary school teacher, work long hours and constantly worry about her students.
"A teacher was the last thing I wanted to be," said the Clear Creek Middle School science and math teacher.
Erickson admits he didn't really enjoy high school, and then attended Oregon State University, "not really knowing what I wanted to do. I wasn't as successful there as I would have liked to have been."
He decided to take a break from college and got a job at Outdoor School.
That stint in Outdoor School changed his path.
"That's when I realized I was supposed to be a teacher. I was just prolonging the inevitable," he said.
He finished his degree at Concordia University and was hired by the Gresham-Barlow School District at Dexter McCarty Middle School, where he did his student teaching in 1995. He spent 21 years at Dexter McCarty and the last four at Clear Creek. He teaches math, science and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math).
"Tom Erickson is one of the most passionate and dedicated educators I've had the privilege to work with," said John George, principal of Dexter McCarty Middle School.
Erickson is as committed to his students as his teacher mother.
"These kids need us. We have to support our kids," he said.
When he himself was in middle school, he wanted to be a firefighter, but poor vision kept him out of the profession back then.
"I wanted to help the community by being a firefighter. This is a way of doing that in a different way," he said.
Clear Creek principal David Atherton called Erickson "an innovator" and said "he is continually learning and staying current on issues, trends and technology. He brings this to the classroom each and every day."
Because there is no prescribed STEAM curriculum or textbook, Atherton said Erickson "creates his units and projects based on what is happening in the world and student interests. It takes a very special person to have the ability to develop and deliver what he does."
Atherton said Erickson "is exposing students to skills, tools and knowledge for fields and careers that are emerging or haven't been invented yet. Applying the engineer-design cycle and focusing on collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking at each stage establishes habits of mind."
Atherton explained that "students can apply these in any career pathway they choose to pursue. While a certain coding program he uses today may be obsolete by the time students graduate, they will understand the basic concepts and structures and flexibility adapt in new environments and with new languages and tools."
Erickson said he likes teaching because "I like having an influence."
He's definitely having an influence and one important way is through his involvement in Samsung's "Solve for Tomorrow" national invention contest. It challenges students to solve a real world problem through STEAM disciplines.
"I wanted STEAM to be about community projects," Erickson said.
Atherton praised the Samsung participation.
"Students participating in the competition have opportunities to extend their learning beyond the classroom and school. Samsung Solve takes students out into our community to interact with local businesses, industry partners, government, emergency personnel, and health-care professionals," the Wildcats principal said.
The projects prompt the students to think about their learning in the real world and "how their education will shape their future career choices and contributions," Atherton said.
Erickson is in his fourth year of guiding students through this highly competitive contest. The students who want to participate meet after school.
"Its exciting for the kids. The first year I had seven or eight kids, now I have to limit it," he said.
The Clear Creek team advanced to prize winning levels for two of the three years, winning a two-year total of more than $85,000 in the Samsung contest.
The project that did not win any prizes in the Samsung contest one year was a mobile STEM lab. The Wildcats designed the "Tomorrow Bus," a converted school bus stocked with science, technology, engineering and math activities. It would visit schools in the Gresham-Barlow School District and compliment classroom work in STEM.
The district jumped on the students' idea and the Tomorrow Bus is now a reality. It will begin its teaching stops in April.
"It is amazing the support we've had from the community. We're thankful the district is keeping the name. The kids are so excited about that," he said.
This year's Samsung project is concerned with letting drivers know first responders are moving through an area so everyone is safer and the responders have a clear path. Students are doing research, visiting the Gresham firehouse to complete their entry.
"I love this job. It allows me to be creative," Erickson said.
In addition to his other education work, Erickson is on the selection committee for the teacher grants awarded by the Gresham-Barlow Education Foundation.
Vicki Moen, executive director of the foundation, said "Tom is always thoughtful and brings an important perspective to our grant approval process," she said.
Erickson attended David Douglas schools, where his mom taught elementary school. His dad worked for the water bureau and owned a bike shop.
His wife is also a teacher and they have two sons.
When he's not teaching, he likes to support his sons in their athletic competitions and spend time with his family.
Whether it's day-to-day teaching, advising on grants or guiding the Samsung students through their problem solving competition, Erickson is committed to his students.
"His students are privileged to have him as their teacher and our district is fortunate to have him teaching our students," Moen said.
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