The Teacher Who Can “Talk To a 5-Year-Old About Engineering,” By Bill Gates

'I want students to see many different futures,' says Camille Jones, the 2017 Teacher of the Year

I envy people who are good at working with their hands. As much as I love computers, I never got into putting them together or taking them apart the way a lot of hobbyists do. Writing code was one thing—I had fun doing that—but soldering circuit boards was something else.

A lot of that was just my personal aptitude. But maybe things would have been different if I’d had a teacher like Camille Jones, the 2017 Teacher of the Year in my home state of Washington. Camille teaches STEAM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math—and as I saw when she stopped by my office earlier this year, she has a real gift for sparking your imagination with hands-on projects.

(Image: Courtesy of Gates Notes)

Here’s a video from our meeting. Don’t miss the story at the end about the boy with a hidden talent for making bridges:

(Video: YouTube/thegatesnotes)

Camille teaches at Pioneer Elementary in Quincy, a small farming town in Central Washington. She sees every child in school, which means some of her students are just 5 years old. I was surprised that she talks to such young kids about STEAM. I think it’s great, but apparently not everyone agrees: Camille has heard the argument that it is only appropriate for older students.

“It breaks my heart to hear that,” she told me. “By the time students get to fifth grade, a lot of time they have their ideas about what they’re good at and what they like to do. I say, bring STEAM in from kindergarten. Let’s show them all the opportunities in the world today.”

So how exactly do you talk to a 5-year-old about engineering? Camille showed me a clever lesson using a few index cards and a handful of pennies.

I also wondered how Camille reaches every kid at a school with more than 400 students. She approaches her job a bit like a librarian or gym teacher, but with a twist. She sees each class about 15 times a year, and from those classes she and her colleagues identify promising students who would benefit from spending extra enrichment time with her. And from that group, they choose a few students for even more focused attention. This model is unusual enough that even some of the educators on the Teacher of the Year selection committee hadn’t heard of it. 

“I’m looking for kids who would benefit from being pushed a little harder,” she told me. “I see kids who are struggling buy into the idea that they should try things that are hard. And kids who are succeeding become better advocates for challenging work. When you do something difficult and new, your brain grows. It changes your attitude and your perspective on the rest of your education.”

It is a fantastic approach for any school and especially a high-needs one like Pioneer, where a lot of students are English language learners and a number are undocumented. In the three years Camille has had this role, enrollment in her enrichment classes has skyrocketed, and it’s still growing.

For Camille, it’s all about giving children the opportunity to make the most of their talents. “I want students to see many different futures for themselves,” she says. After meeting Camille, I have no doubt that she’s helping all her students dream big.

Bill Gates is co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.