Arapahoe teacher named 2020-2021 MIT Excite Award recipient

Dan Schaben
Dan Schaben

Although known among colleagues for his creative resolve and classroom savvy, Dan Schaben would say his teaching style focuses on turning his students into the experts.

Schaben’s mix of humility and willingness to try innovative methods of robotics in his rural Nebraska classroom is why he has been named a 2020-2021 Lemelson-MIT Excite Award recipient.

The Excite Award annually honors 25 K-12 educators across the nation who exhibit outstanding work facilitating project-based programs in their schools. In addition to two letters of recommendation, applicants must submit a proposal for a yearlong, open-ended invention project with their students. As part of the award, Schaben will have the opportunity to participate in a virtual professional development workshop for Excite winners July 29-31, 2020, and upon completion of the course, he will receive $1,500 to kickstart his project.

For Schaben, this award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Engineering embodies an ongoing journey of personal and professional growth 22 years in the making. Throughout his career, the Arapahoe High School mathematics and robotics instructor has accrued a list of accolades that serve as a testament to both his classroom innovation and his ability to spearhead new programs at his school.

However, Schaben attributes his success to the supportive network of his peers and professors who gave him the confidence along the way to take risks and ultimately, to apply for the Excite Award.

“The people I have met have lifted me up, and in turn, I’m lifting up everybody around me,” Schaben said “And, that’s really what a lot of the professors at UNL and throughout my career have done, too.”

When he first started teaching at Arapahoe in 2007, Schaben understood the importance of cultivating an engaging curriculum that catered to the needs of all of his students. However, his various teaching jobs limited his availability outside of class, so Schaben began creating YouTube videos in 2010 that simplified common concepts in various branches of mathematics. The channel was originally meant to be a resource for his students seeking additional help outside of class, but it quickly reached a much larger audience than the instructor anticipated – his channel currently has 7,100 followers, and many of his videos have reached hundreds of thousands of views.

“I probably teach more people around the world from YouTube than I do here in Arapahoe,” Schaben said. “After 20 years of teaching, I’ve gotten pretty good at explaining mathematics in simple terms.”

Despite the unexpected success of his channel, the intent behind Schaben’s videos highlights a widely held insecurity among rural educators. He explained that they often feel isolated from resources, so developing a rigorous course without an external sense of support can be a process wrought with self-doubt.

After earning his master’s degree from the Math in the Middle program in 2007, Schaben was president of the Nebraska Association of Teachers of Mathematics for four years. When he was named a National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Master Teaching Fellow in 2011, Schaben got the opportunity to participate in a 24-credit-hour graduate program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that centered on educator development. These experiences were pivotal points in Schaben’s teaching career.

“I had a very fixed mindset, and I think [my professors and program mentors] opened up my mind,” Schaben said. “They gave me the growth mindset I needed to have the confidence to do what I do. I was able to connect mathematics in ways that I did not even know existed. That’s where I learned how to take my knowledge and actually use it, apply it, and confidently understand it.”

Instilled with this newfound self-assurance, Schaben began to embrace challenges in his classes as an opportunity to learn alongside his students. When he was first approached about teaching a course in robotics, Schaben was dubious. Nonetheless, he was moved by this show of faith. Around the same time, Schaben had applied for the 2015 Nebraska Teacher of the Year Award. He was named a finalist and awarded a $1,000 grant to bring “something new” to Arapahoe.

Excited by the prospect of introducing a new course to his school and intrigued by the challenge of immersing himself in the field of robotics, Schaben knew exactly how to use the grant: “I took that thousand dollars and bought eight Arduino starter kits that we used to start the Robo Math program.”

Fostering this growth mindset in the classroom, Schaben happily admits that he has learned just as much from his students as he has taught by gently challenging their thought processes.

“I tell my students, you’d bring this cool thing to your grandma and she would say, ‘Oh, that's nice. What does it do? What are some things that you learned making it?’ ” Schaben said. “Things like that you teach by asking questions and guiding them. It puts the problem back on them so they have to become the expert.”

Though Schaben was actively exploring ways to enhance his robotics program, it was not until his visit to Grand Island Senior High School (GISH) last fall that he heard about the Excite Award. Following Schaben’s presentation to the school’s math teachers, the GISH head of robotics began asking about Schaben’s future plans for Robo Math, immediately suggesting that because of the uniqueness of the program, Schaben would make a dynamic candidate for MIT’s Excite Award.

“Had I not gone to Grand Island and presented that day, [the award] would not have happened,” Schaben said.

Inspired by his rural and robotic roots, Schaben’s proposed invention project aims to reduce chemical use in agriculture.

“My thought was to use OpenCV, which is a computer vision in an agricultural setting that would distinguish plants and crops from weeds. Then, I could create some sort of device to eliminate the weeds and leave the crops alone,” Schaben said.

Since winning the award, Schaben has started taking computer vision courses through the Lemelson-MIT program, and he looks forward to applying and expanding upon this knowledge, working with his robotics students to put his plan into action.

“My idea is more like reaching for the stars. Who knows if we'll get there, but I’m a big believer that if we at least start heading in that direction, good things will come,” Schaben said. “No matter if we reach our goal or not, we’re going to get somewhere cool.”

While Schaben has taught six graduate courses to mathematics teachers through the Nebraska Math and Science Summer Institutes, in the summer of 2020, he was asked to help teach a computer science graduate course to K-8 teachers in Central Nebraska as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant AIR@NE: Adapt, Implement and Research at Nebraska.

“As a helper for the course, I ended up gaining as much as the students,” Schaben said.

His approach to guiding his fellow teachers to learn coding and robotics was no different from his experience helping his high school students.

“I love math, but have always been more attracted to its application and its use as an adjective describing our world. What better application than computer science. The hardest part of [robotics] is that you are just failing constantly. So my job is to keep the students from being so frustrated they quit – I’m their cheerleader more than their teacher.”

Dan Schaben would like to thank colleague Shelby Aaberg at Scottsbluff Senior High School; his professors Jim Lewis, Gordon Woodward, Patience Fisher, Wendy Smith, Michelle Homp, Kristin Pfabe, and Christine Franklin; and the many other awe-inspiring educators throughout the state who have influenced his career.

-- Gabrielle Cottraux, UNL CSMCE communications intern