Putting complicated parts together just comes naturally to Julie Ryan. She grew up doing it. John, her ironworker father, built the home she grew up in. Julie and her three siblings built the outdoor decks and other items around the house.

Her mom, Janette, was a nurse and literally helped raise the house in addition to raising a family
“My father and my mom built our whole house together. When my dad was at work, my mom was at home, building the furniture. So, this kind of stuff just came second nature to me,” Julie said in a recent interview.

That’s why Julie, a 28-year-old high school technology teacher for the School District of the Chathams in Morris County, is unafraid of building robots and helping her high school students compete with some of the most advanced technology and design students in the world.

Her superintendent, Dr. Michael LaSusa, credits Julie, a team of hard-working teachers, and strong support from the community with making the School District of the Chathams the place to receive an excellent education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The Chathams’ program was honored recently by the New Jersey Technology and Engineering Educators Association (NJTEEA). Julie Ryan received an “image award” for her work with students, and the school district was recognized by the association for having “one of the only comprehensive K-12 STEM programs in the state of New Jersey, providing weekly STEM instruction starting in Kindergarten.”

When she first started six years ago, the program covered the basics, “but we transitioned pretty quickly,” Julie said.

Dr. LaSusa said that parents encouraged the district to grow the program quickly. A referendum that allowed the district to spend more to improve its technology program passed with support from nearly 70 percent of the voters.

Classrooms were renovated. Computers were purchased. Teachers were hired. And suddenly, the Chathams program was doing very well in state championships, qualifying for the past few years for an international competition that took place last year in Detroit.

The Chathams district students got to meet and compete with 128 teams comprised of the most talented design and technology students in the world. Though they didn’t win the contest, her students were proud, Julie said, because their robot performed better than it had all year.

The contest required students to build a 25-pound robot that could fit in an 18-inch cube. The robot then had to have an arm emerge from its body, and the arm had to be able to lift the robot, and hold it, suspended in the air. The entire robot was built by Julie’s students from scratch.

Superintendent LaSusa explained how the Chathams program works. In a field dominated by men, Chathams’ programs have succeeded in attracting the attention of its female students. Seven years ago, all the students taking computer science classes were young men. Today, 18 percent of the students are young women, a number that grows to 23 percent for the advanced courses, LaSusa said, adding that female enrollment in Julie’s robotics courses has reached 46 percent.

“All of our students take design and tech courses once a week, at minimum, in grades K through five. Then in grades six through eight, they have additional course work, some of which is required, some of which is elective based,” said LaSusa who last year was named the Region I Superintendent of the Year by the N.J. Association of School Administrators.

“When they get to high school,” he said, “students can continue with teachers like Julie, or they can pursue computer science exclusively, if they want.”

For all of the technological expertise she imparts to her students, she teaches them one important “soft skill” – the art of getting along with others. Essentially, it boils down to don’t talk “smack” to your opponents. Don’t gloat.

“I tell them that, outside of the classroom, they need to build their networking skills.” Today’s opponent might be tomorrow’s job recruiter.

“You don’t know,” she said, “where your next move might be.”

Alan Guenther is the assistant editor of the New Jersey School Boards Association.