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From Corporate to Classroom: AWIM Volunteer Becomes STEM Advocate for All

Posted: November 9, 2023

Sara Shunkwiler is an engineer, educator, and instructional designer at John Hopkins University, but above all, she’s a disability and STEM advocate at all levels.

Sara always knew she wanted to go into engineering. From a young age, she held a passion for math and science, and devoted her college years to studying engineering, math and science.

When Sara began her career as an engineer for General Motors in Flint, Michigan, she started looking at ways to help teachers in Flint teach science better. That’s when she found SAE International. 

Sara was one of the very early pilot testers of SAE’s A World In Motion® (AWIM®) PreK-12 STEM education programming through her work with GM. As an early volunteer in the 1990s, Sara and teachers in Flint gave feedback to SAE on what worked and what didn’t and continuously noted the enthusiasm of all the students for the hands-on learning opportunity. 

After over a decade in the engineering industry, Sara said she realized that she could continue to get patents and hang them on her walls, or she could teach students that they could do this. She made the jump from engineering to education by getting her master’s in mathematics and science education at Ohio State University and even used AWIM in her thesis which focused on teaching students to think critically to learn rather than just produce what they’re told to produce.

“When I was in school, there was one right answer. I was always taught, ‘Here’s the question, here’s the answer we want and there’s only one answer, and you’re not allowed to explore,’” Sara said. “That’s what I love about A World In Motion; my students were allowed to experiment, get it wrong and figure it out.”

Today, she teaches chemistry and physics content and methods to largely Teach for America K-12 educators through John Hopkins School of Education and believes AWIM has influenced how she teaches her students.

Over the last twenty years, STEM education has continued to evolve. Sara noted that STEM wasn’t even a “buzzword” when she started her education journey and expressed gratitude for today’s higher focus on STEM.

“I’m really happy we’re getting more emphasis on STEM education because one of the main reasons I decided to switch careers from engineering to education was that I could see the students who were left out of STEM,” Sara said. “In the schools I was working with, a lot of it was racial and socioeconomic. There’s been a recent focus on schools that are economically deprived, but what hasn’t changed is our students with disabilities.”

AWIM’s mission is to bring STEM education to life with an inquiry-based learning experience by combining practical, hands-on learning and mentorship to provide equitable access to STEM for all.

In the early 2000s, Sara worked with students from an affluent suburb of Columbus who grew up around STEM—a very different experience from her Flint, Michigan, students with whom she started volunteering—but they shared the same excitement for paper boats used in the Skimmer Challenge. The students were the same age, but their ability to see themselves in STEM varied dramatically based on their previous educational experiences.

Sara wanted to level the playing field, giving students from both backgrounds an equal opportunity to develop their STEM identity and view themselves as the scientists and innovators of tomorrow.

“Starting from the youngest ages, we need more diverse role models, we need to have students see themselves as successful, and if we don’t prepare them early with a science investigation mindset, they’re shut out for the rest of their career,” Sara said.

Ready to join Sara in her mission to provide equitable STEM learning opportunities for all students? Learn how you can get involved in SAE’s A World in Motion program and become a role model to the next generation of innovators here.