LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Tiffani Cortez

Position: Technology and Engineering Instructor
School: Harmony School of Innovation
School District: Harmony Public Schools
City, State: Beverly Hills, TX

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Tiffani Cortez was nominated by an anonymous student.

What is a mentor? A mentor is someone who willingly sacrifices their time to invest in others' lives, someone who helps students turn dreams into reality. A mentor is someone who gives students the advantage to find opportunities. Team Devastators 2950 recognizes this from their mentor, Tiffani Cortez.

Not only do they recognize her hard work and dedication, but so does Texas. Within the past few years, Ms. Cortez has won two STEM teacher of the year awards, Region 12 Teacher of the Year Finalist, Educators Credit Union Teacher of the month February 2016, and TCEA Classroom Teacher of the Year Finalist, and a Woodie Flowers Finalist Award for FIRST Robotics Competitions.

Ms. Cortez started teaching at Harmony Schools in Waco seven years ago. She caused a revolution in her school with her passion, innovation, leadership, technical expertise and drive for community outreach. She goes above and beyond in her attempts to help her students excel in STEM education. Ms. Cortez eats, sleeps, and breathes STEM. Her energy and enthusiasm for helping students truly has no bounds.

"Ms. Cortez is the Wonder Woman of our school. She is just so passionate about education and she brings so much light and energy that you want to learn from her," said Nadia Ruiz, former business team captain.

Ms. Cortez’ participation does not end once the bell rings, either. She has assisted her school by organizing many extracurricular organizations. In addition to coaching robotics, she is the advisor for both the National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society, and she began an all girl STEAM group called Girlz Gone Geek, which has been rebranded to be a SWENext Club (SWE: Society of Women in Engineering).

Ms. Cortez is the director of Harmony’s Robotics program; she not only oversees operations of all ten teams that her school now has, but is also the robotics leader for all of Harmony Public Schools. When she began coaching seven years ago, her school only had one FLL team, one (FTC) team, and one (FRC) team. The Waco school now has two Jr. FLL, four FLL, four FTC, and one FRC teams. She is a mentor and coach for seven of those successful robotics teams, which include two all girl FIRST Tech Challenge teams that developed out of the girls group she started. She has grown the robotics program from having less than 5% female students to having 54% female students, a percentage that's still growing. Ms. Cortez wanted to enhance her school’s involvement in STEM and robotics, so she worked to establish a FIRST Lego League Qualifier event at her school. Participants came to Waco from all over Texas and Oklahoma to compete. She has helped make robotics competitions the cool thing to do at Harmony-Waco.

Ms. Cortez realizes the value in outreach and demonstrates this by taking her students to present at every opportunity possible. She has developed a finely tuned presentation team consisting of herself and her robotics students. They have presented for Waco Engineering Day, YES! Expo, Dell Expo, Waco Cultural Arts Festival, Austin Mini Maker Faire, and many, many other events. Ms. Cortez has presented at the last five annual T-STEM Conferences and one TCEA Conference on robotics, 3D Modeling and Printing. She has also spoken about getting female students more interested in STEM majors and careers, as well as the curriculum she uses in her classes. She was even invited to present with DiscoverE for an NSTA and GE Foundation event in Florida working with schools attempting to develop their STEM programs.

Outside of school, Ms. Cortez is a member of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Event Planning Committee. She has chaired two American Cancer Society Relay for Life for two years, is on the Waco leadership team of the National Girl Collaborative Project, and has been asked to help plan Waco’s first Maker Faire and be on several different robotics and STEM program committees. She was even a founding partner of the first Waco Girl Day event, working with the Mayborn Museum in Waco, SpaceX, Texas A&M University, Baylor University, McLennan Community College, Texas State Technical College, the Girl Scouts, the Cameron Park Zoo, and other organizations. Together, they are working on doing this again in 2019. She made sure all of her girl club students were trained in the SciGirl Curriculum, and they hosted two booths with activities directed towards igniting an interest in STEM in young ladies.

Ms. Cortez has been awarded five 3D printers and a Carvey CNC Machine via grants from Makerbot, FIRST and other programs. Because of this, she has developed several different projects to help her students learn how to use this valuable and fun educational technology tool that involves 3D modeling using various CAD software. Over the past five years, Ms. Cortez has been asked by AggieSTEM and other programs at Texas A&M to spend several weeks in College Station teaching extensive classes on 3D printing to both students and teachers. She has been asked to return next year due to the success of her teaching in the last couple of years. She has helped mentor teachers from her school and others in PBL development, robotics, 3D printing, and graphic design.

Ms.Cortez has shown a great amount of diversity as a teacher over the past seven years, teaching anything from 4th grade computer classes to robotics and automation to her juniors. When Ms. Cortez started teaching engineering. she started out with 9 students in her initial engineering class. Today, she has 125+ students each year under her instruction. She has spent countless hours over the summer in professional development getting trained for PLTW, Engineer your World, Engineering by Design, and the Infinity Project, in addition to participating in programs like the Enrichment Experiences in Engineering (E3) Program at TAMU, an Externship program with Region 12, finishing a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Design with a focus on STEM, and anything else she knows will help her prepare better experiences in the classroom for her students.

“I don’t expect every one of my students to be engineers in the future, but I do make sure that every one of my students leaves my class thinking like an engineer," said Cortez.

Ms.Cortez has shown that mentoring is much more than a day-to-day activity; it's a door that leads to greatness. She possesses the energy and passion that is needed in order to take her school to new heights. She has some of the strongest leadership skills, in addition to the technical knowledge that she brings to the robotics team. One of Texas’ best and brightest, Ms.Cortez continues to inspire students, just as she has been inspired by her students. Her excitement for STEM and her zeal for knowledge make her an exemplary role model for other teachers.

Ms. Cortez sustains a unique way of showing her passion to help her students flourish. She has taught her teams to communicate with each other and the community in ways they will understand.

"From observing Ms. Cortez' behavior, we have learned to have better team ethics. She has also instilled discipline in our team," said her nominator. "When someone on the team is discouraged, she takes it and turns it into inspiration. Watching her consistently invest her time, not only in robotics, but in our team, has motivated us in unimaginable ways."

For example, on the last day of the robotics build season, Ms. Cortez stays at school until midnight to give her team the advantage of having extra time. Although she has to work on lesson plans and grading work, she stays because she is selfless, and she has taught the team to be selfless.

"One of the ways she has touched our hearts is by challenging us. She challenges us, not only to create a better robot each year, but to create a better 'us,'" said her nominator. "She inspires us to go in the depths of all our challenges and look at them as inspiration, because challenges only help."

"She recognizes the value of robotics and shares her perspective to all. From Engineering, Business, and Design, Ms. Cortez always reminds us how we are all equally balanced," said Ruiz. "Thus, she invites any individual with a desire for the STEM community to join along and represent team Devastators. She also helps prepare us for a brighter future."

Ms. Cortez keeps in mind that she is coaching high school students, and that they are learning step by step on what to do and how to make a successful future. This outstanding educator guides students when they can not guide themselves.

"Team Devastators is proud to call Tiffani Cortez a mentor. Like Tiffani always shows us, be a change, realistic, persistent, and an inspiration to others," her nominator said.



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