LIVERMORE -- Regina Brinker joined the teaching profession later in life, but her classroom style is purely cutting-edge.
The Christensen Middle School teacher hustled to start a STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- program at her school when other schools were still trying to figure out what STEM means.
She takes a decidedly hands-on approach to learning, making students use their brains to tackle problems -- an approach touted through the new Common Core State Standards Initiative being adopted nationwide.
It's for these innovations and much more that Brinker was named one of two Alameda County teachers of the year. She and Victor Doan of San Leandro High School will compete for California Teacher of the Year. The state honorees will be notified later this month.
"It's very flattering," Brinker said of the county honor, announced Oct. 3. "There's some pressure to it, too. I honestly bought more things to spruce up my classroom. I feel like every day needs to be good. People are going to be looking at me a little bit more."
Brinker's that type of teacher, always striving to be better and always searching for the next best teaching method to reach her students.
"She is so dynamic," parent Barbara Kai said. "She inspires kids. Both my kids were already interested in science, but my children are very different and the way they learn is very different. She was so amazing and so effective with both of them. She makes them love learning. I find her to be an inspiration. She's always learning herself. She's always moving forward and finding new things."
Brinker's quest to be ahead of the curve and bring new ideas to her classroom has taken her to Alaska, Japan, Norway, Boston and San Francisco. She doggedly seeks opportunities to learn about projects she can take back to the classroom.
Her current passion comes from a recent summer session in Monterey where she learned how to make remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) similar to what are used at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. She'll challenge her students this year to make their own ROVs while they follow the research of an institute scientist working with a real ROV.
"I'm looking forward to the ROVs because that's really different," Brinker said. "I enjoy giving students projects to do and saying, 'Here's the end point,' and then giving them that opportunity to make that work."
Brinker didn't set out to be a teacher. The Pennsylvania native got her bachelor's degree in exercise science and a master's degree in exercise physiology before working in cardiac rehabilitation for a decade.
Her husband's job with the Department of Energy kept the family on the move, leading Brinker to change careers multiple times as the family hop-scotched around the country. She dedicated a decade to raising her three kids while also working at a fitness center, running a jewelry business and teaching jewelry-making classes. Spending quality time with her kids, now a high school senior and two college students, led Brinker to consider a career in teaching.
"The thing that influenced me in changing careers really was being with my own children and understanding what motivated them," she said. "It's always been very helpful for me to look at schoolwork and homework from both sides of the fence."
Brinker returned to Chapman University's Concord campus for her teaching credential. She worked as a substitute teacher before landing her first teaching gig in Oakley a decade ago. She taught there one year before the family relocated to Livermore and Brinker got on at Christensen.
She now teaches sixth-grade earth science and seventh- and eighth-grade engineering through the innovative Project Lead the Way program that continues through high school.
"I try to give my students opportunities," Brinker said. "You never know who will step up and how they will step up. Students who are not necessarily at the top of the class academically may be the ones who build the best robot. It's good to give them the opportunity to shine."
Her classroom projects and eagerness to pilot a STEM program set her apart, Christensen Principal Pat Avilla said.
"Everything is very hands-on for the students," Avilla said. "Regina facilitates that style of learning very well. She's the kind of teacher every student wants to have but also wants to be when they grow up."
Brinker is great at finding projects that inspire students and make them think, such as building robots and working on computers, Avilla noted.
"They're doing all the things that kids today enjoy doing," she said. "She's a facilitator. She's not just standing in front and filling their heads full of knowledge. They are learning through doing."
Kai's two children had Brinker a total of five times while at Christensen. Kai is particularly impressed with how Brinker keeps girls enthusiastic about science during the middle school years when many girls lose interest in that crucial subject.
"She does so many cool things that demonstrate principles of science and engineering but gives kids a chance to be creative and to use those principles in their own way to create whatever the end goal is," Kai said. "She inspires a love of learning and science in these kids. It's wonderful to see. I wish there were more teachers like her."