Leyf Starling '99, Physics and Robotics Teacher

Jeff Peirce took his young daughters to his environmental engineering lab at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering long before there was a “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” He would take Leyf Peirce Starling and her sister into his lab on the weekend to help him. 

“He would get us really excited about being engineers and helping him, and we were ‘real engineers.’ Looking back, I realize all we did was clean beakers and test tubes for him, but that is definitely part of the research side and engineering.

“He introduced us to how this is a way to approach problem-solving, this is a way to approach helping people. This is how you can contribute and be really creative and apply what you're learning in school to come up with some really cool ideas to solve these problems that are around us.”

The lesson took: Both Starling and her sister pursued engineering in college. So how did Starling, who graduated from the University of Virginia with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, find her way to teaching at Durham Academy — a school she attended from fourth grade through graduation in 1999, excelling at academics and athletics?

Starling was ready to interview with Boeing and Johnson & Johnson her senior year at Virginia when a capstone project piqued her interest in teaching. She was part of a design group of fourth-year students who took on an engineering teaching kit challenge. They were matched with a Charlottesville middle school, working with the science teacher to develop an activity or mini unit that would teach science concepts and also introduce sixth-graders to the idea of engineering.

“Our design team decided to do buoyancy and design an underwater vehicle that could be mutually buoyant and powered with a motor to teach different concepts that they were teaching in sixth-grade science. We spent the year developing the unit. We worked with the teacher, and then we took it into the classroom. … It was kind of like a crash course in some of the fundamental teaching pedagogy, but it was also how, logistically, can we make this work. Then we went in for a week and taught the science teacher's class. And it was really fun.”

At that point, Starling had a realization: “I love engineering, but one of the things I love most is sharing that. My mom said something about, I think DA is hiring a new science teacher, and I was like, oh that's cool. … This could be another way to use my engineering background.”

She taught science and math at DA Middle School for two years and also connected, through her father, with an N.C. State University engineering professor who was working on developing curriculum that would get engineering into more classrooms.

“It was really one of those stars-aligned things. The timing was perfect that I was able to help write that initial grant and now has been around — 2004 is when it was really launched — it's NSF [National Science Foundation] funded, it's got over a million users from all around the world. … I did a lot of thinking about how to share ideas of curriculum for teachers, how to get engineering into their science classrooms, developing different lessons and activities, but I've also been an editor for them, I'm still sometimes editing for them.”

Making younger students aware of engineering was a novel idea in the early 2000s, and “was a great way to combine my excitement for engineering and problem solving, sharing that with kids to inspire them.

“You know the term STEM [Science Technology Engineering Mathematics]? The E is actually meaning stuff these days, as opposed to don't worry about the E until you get to college. There's much more value in introducing the E even in elementary school or the lower school level, again just as a way of problem-solving. That was something that while I was teaching, I was also doing on the side. It made me more aware of what I needed to be working on as teacher in the classroom.”

Romance moved Starling from Durham to Charlotte, to be closer to her now-husband. She taught at Providence Day and the Fletcher School and earned a master’s in teaching, with an emphasis in special education, from UNC-Charlotte.  

“I went back and got my master's in special ed because I wanted more tools in my tool belt, so to speak, to be able to help all students that were my classroom. I ended up doing my research for my master's dissertation on the efficacy of using an engineering teaching kit to teach sixth-grade science to students with learning disabilities and ADHD. … It was one of those really easy dissertations to do because it was so common sense — that the more you can connect the science content to the real world, the more you can pull from student experiences. ‘Oh wait, this is a problem. How can we solve it?’ Now you have a reason to learn this. Combine it with multisensory ways to access the material and assess the material through engineering design projects, the more students are going retain, no matter what.”

A job opportunity for her husband brought the family back to the Durham-Chapel Hill area. Starling signed on at N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, developing an engineering curriculum aimed at students who would be learning a trade rather than going to college. When the grant money ran out for that program, she went to N.C. State to serve as an outreach coordinator for the College of Engineering and also teach an Intro to Engineering course to first-year students majoring in engineering.

“Part of our mission — it was called the Engineering Place — was to share the enthusiasm and passion for engineering with all students and people in the state of North Carolina.” Starling went to STEM nights at high schools, did activities at children’s museums and led “faculty professional development on how to get engineering into your courses, the different ways you can do that, how deep you go into engineering versus just mentioning it as a thing. I loved it, and it was a great experience, but I missed the classroom setting and I missed the students. I loved working with the teachers, but I really missed the kids.”

Starling got back to the classroom in 2016, teaching two courses at N.C. School of Science and Math in the morning and teaching geometry and robotics at DA — it was the inaugural year of the Upper School’s robotics program — in the afternoon. She returned as a full-time faculty member this school year, teaching physics and robotics classes and helping coach both the robotics team and the varsity field hockey team. (Starling was a field hockey star at DA, played her first year at U.Va., but did not continue because field hockey practice interfered with her engineering labs.)

Her son, Davis, is a DA second-grader and her daughter, Leyna, is in pre-kindergarten.

“I think the exciting thing about being here is that when teaching even crossed my radar my fourth year at U.Va. early in the capstone, I was like, oh, I'd want to go to high school because you can do more engineering. I had very tight blinders on the idea that you had to have advanced math to do engineering, you had to be in advanced sciences to even introduce engineering. And then I realized lower school kids, middle school kids, anyone can grasp the idea of the engineering design process, using it as a way to help other people.”

Starling is excited by the opportunity “to grow the robotics and engineering program at DA, and to integrate a lot of those interdisciplinary topics into the physics and the robotics and even the math [she taught] last year, seeing that as a way to help advance the school in this field. … I want to provide more students those opportunities.”

Teaching may not have been the career Starling set out for, but she is a woman on a mission now.

“One of the main reasons I have continued down this not-very-traditional career path is I wanted to make engineering and science accessible and exciting for all students. I love figuring out how to engage students in ways to solve problems using math, science and creativity; helping students see that a viable way to contribute to the community is by using their knowledge to develop unique solutions.

“I have also always been passionate about really making this accessible for all students. That's really why I wanted to earn my master’s in special ed with a focus on learning disabilities and/or ADHD. And that is why I helped create and still lead the NC STEM Camp for High School Students with Visual Impairments or Blindness, and why I think it's our responsibility to work closely with The Hill Center to provide opportunities like our robotics team to all students. 

“I want all students to experience how much fun applied problem-solving is, and how rewarding it is to keep improving solutions.”