Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Joann Blumenfeld – A Catalyst for Improving STEM Opportunities for High School Students with Disabilities

North Carolina Secretary of Department of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart, left, offers an award of recognition to Joann Blumenfeld, right, a science and OCS teacher at Broughton High School, on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 in Raleigh. Madeline Gray | North State Journal
Joann Blumenfeld, a Science and Special Education Teacher at Broughton High School in Raleigh received a visit from Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart Tuesday. Secretary van der Vaart presented Ms. Blumenfeld with her certificate from completing the N.C. Environmental Education Certification Program and spoke to her class of 10th grade biology students. Read more about this visit in the North State Journal.

Blumenfeld is a North Carolina Science Leadership Fellow, a Kenan Fellow, a Dow Fellow and she serves on the National Science Teachers Association Special Education Advisory Board. She recently completed her N.C. Environmental Education Certification, a program offered through the DEQ Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs.

While earning her environmental education certification, Blumenfeld attended a workshop that inspired her to begin a new program called “Catalyst: Creating Opportunities in STEM for High School Students with Disabilities” through the Science House at North Carolina State University. “While I was attending a NCSU Sustainable Forestry Teacher’s Academy trip for teachers two summers ago, I was visiting a veneer factory near New Bern. The factory tour guide was explaining to us they brought in staff from Canada because they didn’t have local people who were industrial mechanics. The job required a particular two-year degree. It dawned on me that my students can do this and we as educators are not doing enough to align our curriculum and experiences for students for needed STEM jobs right here in North Carolina.” 

Blumenfeld went back home and wrote a grant to begin Catalyst which is now in its second year. “We have so many students here with so many skills and so many STEM job opportunities we have a hard time filling. We need more STEM and vocational programs to help support students to reach their goals, as well as allowing them to consider a wide range of STEM Career opportunities and educational pathways.”

The program involves one week-long training and eight Saturday sessions that include topics such as sustainable energy, forestry and pasture ecology. She currently has 22 students participating from 20 high schools. Her Catalyst students are finalists for the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam, which awards high school students, teachers and mentors to invent technological solutions to real-world problems. 

When asked about her experience in the environmental education certification program, Blumenfeld said, “The classes are best high quality science content with engaging lessons that have hands on affordable labs and activities I have attended. I was able to meet many enthusiastic educators whom I learned from in each session and also were very supportive who give me extra "energy" to go back to the classroom and do even a better job. The classes were almost all free which is important due to a teacher’s budget. I use the materials I learned daily in my classroom to provide engaging lessons where the students really understand the content. It has also helped them learn more about the environment and how and why it is important for them to be good stewards of it.”

Blumenfeld tries to encourage her students to look at all sides of environmental issues. “We need to be good stewards of the earth but also provide jobs and products." So it’s important for students to understand that it does not always need to be an either/or but rather ‘how can we do this and be good stewards of the earth.’ We also have done global projects with other schools. One was a school in Singapore on water usage. It allowed students to look through the global stakeholder's lens on their values and environmental solutions and compare and contrast them to their own. It also allowed the students to look at what is ‘needed’ in life and the environmental consequence of their choices. I think I have instilled in my students it is important to be good stewards of the earth through these engaging lessons and activities.”

Blumenfeld hopes to engage more students in the Catalyst program so that they can be successful in their current science classes, improve their science content and skills and be exposed to a variety of STEM careers. “We help them to consider different fields and educational pathways for their future,” she said.

Blumenfeld is a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar. She is also part of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Education Forum and she serves on the North Carolina Science Leadership Association Advocacy Committee. In addition, she is a club advisor for STEM Cafe' at Broughton High School which meets weekly and students learn about the STEM Content and Career opportunities.

If you have high school students with disabilities either in Occupational Course of Study(OCS) or the Regular Education Classes who are interested in STEM Careers, Catalyst is a week long program with monthly Saturday Sessions during the school year, located at the Science House at North Carolina State University. The cost of the program is $50 for the summer session and the Saturday Sessions. For more information, please contact Ms. Blumenfeld at: 

To learn more about the Catalyst program, read Catalyst: Creating opportunities in STEM for students with disabilities. For more information about the N.C. Environmental Education Certification Program, visit the Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs’ website at