Meet Dr. Maggie Renken! Dr. Renken is our Director of STEAM and one of our Upper School Science teachers. She holds a Doctorate in Developmental Psychology and has been at Rabun Gap since 2020. Prior to working at Rabun Gap, Dr. Renken served as a tenured professor at Georgia State University, where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses, led research experiences, and oversaw masters' and doctoral students' theses. In her spare time, she enjoys gardening, reading, and being outdoors with her family.
What made you choose to work at Rabun Gap?
I never imagined I would walk away from a tenured position at a university. Some people are still shocked I did. But when we started looking for independent and boarding school options for our oldest, we fell in love with Rabun Gap. We couldn't imagine any of our 3 children attending any other school. We upended our entire lives to move here to make that vision reality. Within weeks of living in Rabun County, I couldn't imagine driving to Atlanta to work, even if only 2 or 3 days a week; so I applied to work at the school. I wasn't sure I would take the plunge until about a week before classes started in August of 2020. The quality of my life has changed for the better tremendously. I find great joy in applying the skills and knowledge I’ve developed over the years to this new context. I haven't looked back with regret once. I am still humming with gratitude that opportunity arrived for our family as it did.
What did you do before coming to Rabun Gap?
I was an Associate Professor in the Department of Learning Sciences at Georgia State University. My job as a professor was divided into 3 categories: 40% of my time was spent teaching, 40% of my time was spent conducting research, and 20% of my time was devoted to service activities. I taught courses on Human Development, Adolescent Development, Cognition and Intellect, and Undergraduate Teaching for undergraduate and graduate students in the College of Education and Human Development. Part of my teaching responsibilities was also the chairing of masters and doctoral students' theses and dissertation committees. I conducted research on scientific reasoning and was particularly interested in how misconceptions in the realm of science are formed, maintained, and altered. I collaborated with colleagues across the world to study instructional strategies, especially those that rely on computer-based interventions, that have the potential to improve science learning and access to STEM fields of study for students from all backgrounds. In my 8 years at GSU, I received around $1 million in university, federal, and private foundation funds to support my research. My service activities at GSU, upon my departure, were largely administrative. I served on the university's Faculty Senate as a member of the Faculty Affairs and Research committees (two of the busiest!). In my final years at GSU, I was the Co-Director of an innovative undergraduate curriculum called Experiential Project-based Interdisciplinary Curriculum (EPIC) and got to work closely with faculty, staff, and students across the university.
What makes Rabun Gap special to you?
I couldn't imagine a place better designed to foster growth. First, there's the idyllic, pastoral setting. Then, there's the wide range of extracurriculars and service opportunities. But most impressively, I don't know of any other examples of institutions that so effectively marry rich, local history and tradition with the varied and eclectic values and traditions of the globe at scale. It's a huge task! And the teachers and administrators I've developed relationships with at Rabun Gap are up to it. By caring deeply about education, community, and each individual student, everyone at Rabun Gap is contributing to the creation of a truly special environment for educating the whole child from early childhood through 12th grade. I think every world leader should be required to experience life at a place like this.
What do you like most about working with our students?
I’ve studied adolescent development in depth over two decades. It is by far my favorite developmental period. Greater society often conceptualizes adolescents, or teenagers, negatively, as rebellious, risk-prone, overly emotional, and irrational. I view them from a positive conceptualization, as the most creative and enthusiastic among our species, those with the potential to spawn the greatest innovation and with the most passion. When given a supportive environment for positive risk-taking, like the one provided at Rabun Gap, adolescents have the opportunity to shine. I love developing relationships with our students that allow me to observe the blossom and shine that is inevitable when students have their first invitation to perform on a stage or athletic field and to apply what they are learning to the greater good. Our students are typical adolescents in this sense, but what I like most about our students is their atypical (for most people this age) focus on care for each other and our community. It’s the melding of so many different backgrounds that makes our students capable of much greater empathy and perspective taking than most.
Why did you decide to become a teacher?
Teaching and leading has always been such a strong urge for me that I don’t know that I ever really got to “decide” to become a teacher. I just am.
What is your teaching philosophy?
The answer to this question in educator-speak is “constructivism.” More colloquially, I see education as discourse. That is, learning is a communal conversation. I learn from my students as they learn from me. This philosophy requires me to be flexible and adapt easily, daily. (This is at the heart of why I love teaching. I get to be a lifelong learner, and no two days are alike.) It requires my students to be ready and willing to approach the learning environment as an opportunity–one in which they actively ask questions and seek information that can be constructed into answers, or more often, into more questions.
Tell us about the STEAM program.
The STEAM program is experiencing a bit of a reinvention right now. Historically, it has been a strong program that offers an elective course for Upper School students and an after school program year round. In addition to maintaining these offerings, we are in the process of evolving into a cross-divisional, interdisciplinary resource for all students and faculty. All students across divisions, not just those enrolled in the STEAM course and after school activities, have the opportunity to work with Mr. Phillips, our STEAM teacher, and me to extend their applied learning in the classroom. STEAM projects merge the mindsets and skills required for creativity (generating big ideas), innovation (executing big ideas), and entrepreneurship (undertaking big ideas). These mindsets are relevant to the fields of computer science, engineering, and business and include ways of thinking such as computational thinking, design thinking, and agile thinking. The concrete hands-on skills targeted in STEAM are those associated with the arts, including graphic, digital, and decorative arts, and with technology, spanning from woodworking and metalworking to robotics and augmented and virtual reality. Starting next year, students in the STEAM courses will have the opportunity to build an e-portfolio of work with digital badges indicating the skills they have developed while working on projects. We are excited for the potential this has to showcase student work and proficiencies. As Director of STEAM, I am also working with division and department heads to incorporate more opportunities for coding, in the areas of multimedia, web, and game design, into the existing curriculum. The STEAM program at RGNS is a phenomenal resource, and I look forward to involving more and more students in STEAM activities in the coming years.
What would you say to someone interested in joining STEAM?
Do it! In fact, you probably already are “doing STEAM” in your everyday life. We are all natural scientists, exploring our world with wide-open curiosity as soon as we are born. We engage in engineering all the time as we solve some problem and then solve it better the next time. If math intimidates you, I always tell my students that humans invented math, so you can’t possibly be “bad” at it. Maybe we just need to change the way you think about how it applies to your life. By incorporating art, in the form of decorative and industrial arts, and technology, in the form of tools that make our fabrication tasks easier, STEAM is a program that allows you to apply all these natural abilities to tinker, create, and innovate on some of your wildest ideas. And if that’s not appealing, keep in mind that for decades job growth in STEM sectors has grown steadily and is only expected to continue to grow. Your preparedness as a future member of the workforce, as a consumer, and as a citizen of the earth will be benefited from your involvement in STEAM.
What is it like working at the same school that your children attend?
In reference to my PhD, my family has always referred to me as a “thought doctor.” The time demands of my previous career were tremendous, especially when combined with a long-distance commute. Beyond those commitments, my mental energy as a thought doctor was often wrapped up in research and writing that followed me into evenings, early morning time, and weekends. That energy was not directly aligned with the activities and goals in our home, as a family. Now that I’m at Rabun Gap, with my children here too, my work as STEAM Director directly aligns with and even impacts my children’s educational experience. This is not just a relief, but also incredibly rewarding and holds the standard of the work I do at the school to the highest level. It’s also such a perk to be able to watch a daughter play on the playground with friends while I eat lunch or see another daughter interact with my colleagues and students on campus. We all feel held here as a part of a much larger and supportive family. That’s a reward I wouldn’t easily trade.
What is your favorite memory from the time you have worked here so far?
My mental image photo album of my time at Rabun Gap will always be filled with everyday moments like youth never hesitating to stand up for one another and lend a helping hand; summer days at Indian Lake with my family; dining hall dinners buzzing with foreign languages and laughter; cheering in the stands at the Zavala Family Stadium for football, lacrosse, and soccer; watching outstanding student performances in the Reardon. The instructional memories are wonderful too: kindergartners sharing their blueprints for community buildings, STEAM students beaming when a robotic hand built with straws finally works, middle schoolers coming up with innovative solutions for real world problems that leverage technology, Psychology students presenting year-long research projects to a panel of experts with pride. Of all of these, my favorite memory so far resonates with my teaching philosophy and has to be the moment when my Artificial Intelligence class decided they could do better than the existing YouTube videos on the state of AI. I had the privilege of standing back and watching them come up with a plan to take what they've learned and apply it with the lofty aim of educating others for a bright and optimistic future. What's most impressive to me is that they translated frustration to action and have developed something bigger than themselves with potential to be built upon in coming years--the true act of community.
What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume alone?
One of my favorite stories to tell is that when my husband and I met, he was living in a Bluebird Wanderlodge (which is made right here in Georgia). I love road trips, so it was a no-brainer to fall in love with the boy with a bus. We eventually converted the bus to run on veggie oil and would fill the tank with waste oil from Chinese restaurants. I learned a lot in the process, and I still daydream about waking up from a nap as Sam drove us to our next destination to the smell of egg rolls.