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Sparking a Passion for STEM, Part 6: Q&A with Ignited CEO Shari Liss
Oculus Blog
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Posted by Oculus VR
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September 16, 2018
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Last week, we announced our partnership with educational nonprofit Ignited. Four educators, each from different professional backgrounds, worked alongside Oculus engineers, product managers, and others over the summer to complete VR-based projects for the classroom.

We spoke with each participant about their experience on campus, starting with high school physics teacher Ryan Stagg and high school science teacher Betsy Huynh, followed by K-8 math and technology teacher Kevin Olson and high school theater teacher Bryan Reed.

Today, we’re closing out the series with a brief chat with Ignited CEO Shari Liss.

How did you get started with Ignited?

Shari Liss: I’ve been passionate about education for as long as I can remember. Prior to Ignited, I piloted an alternative high school for at-risk students, taught college calculus, and developed a mathematics program to serve both gifted and challenged students in the Bay Area. I joined Ignited in 2000 because it was a great fit for both my passion and background in STEM education. I worked seven years as Education Programs Manager and another seven years as Education Director before being promoted to CEO in 2014.

My aspiration has always been to serve teachers and further STEM education. When I discovered Ignited and read about its mission of connecting industry, research, and education, it made so much sense to me. Having spent many years in the classroom, I knew this was the right next step for my journey. Every teacher should have this opportunity.

How does Ignited help foster student interest in STEM professions?

SL: Teachers make all the difference. When they conclude their fellowships, they’re filled with a palpable sense of renewed passion, commitment, and energy. They go back to the classroom bringing that excitement, equipped with new knowledge of STEM careers and industry environments. They also return with new and innovative curriculum, which we call an Education Transfer Plan. Students are inspired by their teacher’s stories, new industry-relevant lessons, and fresh teaching practices. All of Ignited’s programs help teachers see themselves as scientists, engineers, and researchers who can lead their students in investigations that spur students’ interest in STEM fields.

By directly connecting business leaders and scientists with teachers, we transform the classroom experience, inspiring students to become the next generation of innovators. Ignited Teacher Fellows are supported by industry mentors and seasoned educators to translate real-world experiences into compelling and effective classroom curriculum.

How were this summer’s Oculus fellows selected?

SL: Oculus and other host organizations create projects for fellowship positions and identify employee mentors for each. Teachers apply for the program from December through March with information about their interests, qualifications, and commitment to teaching. From March through May, qualified applicants are invited to express interest in specific fellowship projects submitted by Oculus and our other host organizations. From April through June, our host organizations interview and place candidates until all spots are filled.

Ignited staff help to identify good-fit candidates for each position and send a batch of potential teacher fellow candidates to each position’s mentor for review. The Oculus mentors then review candidates, conduct interviews, and finally select the candidate to whom they would like to offer the role for the summer.

Do you see VR changing how students learn today and in the future? How so?

SL: The idea of using AR/VR to create an opportunity for students to explore any world, any environment, opens infinite possibilities for learning that the typical classroom hasn’t afforded students. AR/VR will let students do the work—using their own hands and experiencing what they’re learning—versus just reading about the skills. This is a game-changer compared to our current classroom environment. These opportunities will allow students to be more creative and engaged, and to experience learning visually. These are all powerful ways to learn that will implant deeply in their memories.

Having been a math teacher, I see incredible opportunity for AR/VR to engage students in subjects that are hard to visualize. Imagining students in VR tackling topics in Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus just seems like an amazing and brilliant way to capture their attention and to excite their learning.

How do you think VR might positively impact students as they enter the workforce?

SL: There seems to me to be vast opportunity in learning through VR—not just as a student, but throughout one’s life. Educational VR applications offer immersive experiences uniquely available through the technology and promote vital skills like critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration, in a way that is safe, equitable, and affordable. Understanding the process and approach used for problem solving around new technologies is game-changing for students.

Our primary goal is helping students. We want to use VR as a vehicle to excite students about STEM learning. The team made great progress toward this goal by ensuring teachers had an engaging and meaningful experience at Oculus, and to help facilitate the VR-related projects they will implement at their schools later in the year.

How does Facebook’s work in VR align with Ignited’s goal of furthering STEM education?

SL: Ten years ago, the world was a different place. Our education system must keep up with the dizzying pace of change, and it must prepare our students to tackle big challenges and opportunities like climate change, cybersecurity, world hunger, healthcare, space travel, and others.

So, how do we prepare our next generation of students today to be the scientists, engineers, and technologists of tomorrow in a world that is changing so quickly? That’s the question we ask at Ignited. It’s why we do what we do. We believe the answer lies in connecting companies like Facebook with our community’s most powerful resource—teachers—to enable the world’s best research institutions to shape education by giving teachers hands-on experience in 21st century skills.

Having teachers experience the process Facebook uses to approach its pioneering work in VR aligns perfectly with our goal to further STEM education. It also keeps teachers knowledgeable about, and excited by, new ways of presenting information.