By Julia Duvall
Teaching is where Patricia Bricker, professor of elementary and middle grades STEM education in Western Carolina University’s College of Education and Allied Professions, feels most at home.
After serving as associate dean of the college, Bricker is starting her 23rd year at WCU back in the classroom as the Jay M. Robinson Distinguished Professor in Educational Technologies.
Her journey to becoming a professor and serving in various leadership roles began when Bricker saw an opportunity to try something new.
“I was working as a fourth-grade teacher and was beginning to lead professional development for other teachers when a short-term position opened at Western,” Bricker said. “I taught a writing methods class in my first semester at WCU and I thought I would be leaving to go back to an elementary class, but I found a space that really worked for me at WCU.”
Bricker’s passion for teacher education bloomed from there and she decided she liked working with teachers in the education programs.
“I worked at WCU full-time and commuted to Knoxville to get my doctoral degree,” Bricker said. “My roots are in natural resources and environmental education and I find myself to be a holistic elementary educator, and my focus often is on integrating elementary science and literacy.”
Bricker was in a fixed-term position at WCU while finishing her doctoral degree and then took on a tenure track position with the College of Education and Allied Professions.
“I've been able to go from a very temporary role to a tenure track and then over time to a tenured position and to serve in different leadership roles. The community has been one that has helped me evolve in meaningful ways,” Bricker said.
In addition to her associate dean and director of teaching education roles in the college and being named a distinguished professor, Bricker completed the WCU Leadership Academy, the WCU Women’s Leadership in Action program, and the UNC System’s BRIDGES: Academic Leadership for Women professional development program. She is a recipient of numerous awards including the North Carolina Science Teachers Association Jo Duckett Wallace Award for Distinguished Service in Elementary Science Education, the WCU Chancellor’s Meritorious Award for Engaged Teaching, and the North Carolina Campus Compact Service Learning Award.
“Western's mission matches who I am as a person,” Bricker said. “The idea that we are here to help our students become the best that they can be. We are also here to support the community and the focus on community engagement and service learning has been a great fit for me.”
Some of Bricker’s proudest achievements include projects such as Growing Minds at WCU, a farm-to-school project with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and area elementary schools.
“That project led to considerable work with WCU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning and that was a very important time in my career as well,” Bricker said. “I had the ability to work with different iterations of leadership professional development here on campus, especially the WCU Women’s Leadership in Action program and working closely with WCU Chief of Staff Melissa Wargo. I am a person who is always seeking to learn and contribute and there have been lots of opportunities for that at Western.”
Bricker shared that she recently experienced a full circle moment with one of her former students during a faculty meeting.
“I was in an elementary and middle grades education faculty meeting recently. The new program coordinator, Melissa Faetz, was my undergraduate student in my early years at WCU,” Bricker said. “She graduated and became a teacher, then came back to WCU as a graduate student and we discovered we had this common interest in integrating science and literacy, so Melissa and I collaborated on teaching and research within her first-grade classroom at South Macon Elementary. About seven years ago, she ended up taking a position at WCU and now she is leading the faculty meetings.”
As far as being named the Jay M. Robinson Distinguished Professor, Bricker shared that she thought it would be a fantastic way to bring all her experience together into one role. The application was open to all WCU full professors with a focus on educational technology.
“I had already made the decision to return to faculty from the associate dean and director position because I wanted to engage more with the teaching, research, and service aspects of faculty life,” Bricker said. “Then, I saw this opportunity and I thought it was a great way to integrate different aspects of the work I've done over the years with teachers in the schools and our current students.”
Bricker’s idea was to bring a STEM education focus to the work and consider the intersection between STEM and educational technology.
“I shared this emerging vision for the distinguished professor role with our dean, Kim Winter, Kelly Tracy, director of the School of Teaching and Learning, and the search committee,” Bricker said. “The background of working with a wide range of projects and groups and holding leadership roles that gave me the opportunity to learn about the people and the region will help me facilitate new community engagement opportunities for WCU.”
Winter shared her thoughts on Bricker’s new role.
“Serving the college in leadership roles over the last 10 years has provided Dr. Bricker with a deep perspective and understanding of teacher education, partnerships with schools, and the needs of teachers, especially beginning teachers,” Winter said. “Her plans include building a Community of Practice in Western North Carolina focused on STEM education. Dr. Bricker also plans to find ways to connect initiatives led by faculty in our college, arts and sciences, and engineering as well as partnering with Educational Outreach to build professional development for teachers and school leaders, perhaps embedding opportunities for micro-credentials and guiding people into our existing, low-enrolled STEM track of our Comprehensive Education master’s degree and STEM education post baccalaureate certificate.”
As far as what Bricker hopes to achieve in this new role, she is interested in professional learning communities and partnerships with a STEM education focus and has pinpointed several collaborations she wants to pursue.
“I want to partner with school systems in our region and with groups such as the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching and the Western Regional Education Service Alliance,” Bricker said. “There are also opportunities to enhance our collaboration with the North Carolina Science House’s western regional office and the Western North Carolina STEM Network. It is about coming up with ways we can work together to move forward.”
Bricker also looks forward to internal collaborations with her fellow WCU colleagues.
“I know that there are faculty members across Western who are engaged in different aspects of STEM education and in particular, colleagues that do outreach with the preschool to grade 12 age group,” Bricker said. “I have this vision to pull us together, learn about what others are doing, identify needs, and partner. There is so much required in schools these days and it can be hard for the students, their families, and the teachers and school leaders. We can use STEM and educational technology to prepare students for their lives and careers, meet STEM workforce needs and bring some much-needed joy into classrooms.”
Winter shared in the enthusiasm for building stronger support systems for new teachers.
“I believe this work has great potential to provide stronger support to beginning teachers in hard-to-staff STEM fields,” Winter said. “Dr. Bricker is a thinker and a dreamer – I appreciate her thoughtfulness and diligence in bringing others together in this important work.”