Tiffani Cortez realized her purpose in life when she looked around her engineering classes and workplace and saw no other women. She decided the most effective way to encourage women into STEM, her field of passion, was through teaching. Cortez is currently a technology and engineering instructor at Harmony School of Innovation where she also serves as the robotics program director. In addition to middle and high school students, she teaches college students as an adjunct professor of interior design at Baylor University. She spends her summers as an instructor of robotics, 3D printing and 3D modeling at Texas A&M University, and she trains other educators through Project Lead the Way and Education Service Center Region 12’s Upward Bound program.
All these opportunities have allowed Cortez to foster a wide community of people with an interest in science, technology, engineering and math. This community proved their genuine admiration and care for Cortez, beyond that of educational bounds, when they rallied around her following her breast cancer diagnosis in 2019. As fearful of a time as it was for Cortez, she is cancer-free today and attributes much of the support she received during her treatment process to her students and co-workers.
Cortez recently spoke with Wacoan writer Anna Tabet about her path to becoming a STEM educator, her dedication to increasing female involvement in the STEM fields and her journey since her breast cancer diagnosis.
WACOAN: I noticed you have an extensive educational background, could you walk me through it?
: I started off at Baylor in ’98. I [was] a psychology major my first year, just because I thought that’s what my parents wanted me to do. But I did not enjoy it at all. I didn’t like it my first year, so I switched to interior design, and I did that until my junior year.
Then I lost my financial aid, so I had to switch to another school. I chose [Texas State Technical College] because they had architectural drafting and design and that was close to interior design. But I wound up falling in love with 3D modeling. It really piqued my interest, and I wanted to continue with that.
I got a job at Central Texas Iron Works doing 3D modeling for steel structures. But while I was in school, I noticed I was usually the only female in all of my classes. While I was working at CTIW, I started getting my bachelor’s in engineering technology, and again, I was the only female.
One of my best friends is a teacher so I started thinking, maybe if I start teaching, I can get more girls involved in engineering. I got certified to teach and started teaching at [University High School]. Then there was a big layoff in 2011. I got laid off because I was a first-year teacher, and I wound up getting a job at Harmony. I’m their engineering teacher. I teach sixth through 12th grade this year.[Harmony] kind of pushed us toward getting a master’s. So I got a master’s in education, instruction and curriculum, with a focus on STEM. I can focus more on engineering in that way. And now I’m working on my doctorate in the same area, and my thesis is going to be on getting more females in engineering and computer science.
WACOAN: Did you always have a passion for STEM?
Cortez: Well my dad and most of my family is in construction. I was always around it and helping him out on the job sites. I grew up on a ranch. So I grew up as a tomboy for the most part. But I enjoyed building stuff and putting stuff together. I usually do that around the house instead of my husband. I enjoy working with my hands. I really like the more creative side of it, like graphic design. That’s kind of what interested me in 3D modeling.
WACOAN: You mentioned earlier that you’re currently pursuing a doctorate, why is that?
Cortez: I want to design my own engineering curriculum for K-12, because I’ve been through so much training for so many different curriculums and I’ve seen where they could improve. I know I could do something that could engage kids a little bit better. I figured I’d have more of a status if I had a doctorate and more training.
WACOAN: You briefly mentioned your role as an engineering teacher at Harmony, but I know that you also are the robotics director. Is there a role you prefer having?
Cortez: I guess robotics because it’s not as structured, but I enjoy both.
The difference is the kids in robotics want to be there. The kids in the classroom don’t always want to be there, so it’s harder. But my robotics kids are awesome. They’re taking initiative and begging me to stay after school. Right now, they’re going crazy because we can’t do any robotics [due to the pandemic].
It’s a lot more fun because they want to learn stuff. They take initiative, and they teach themselves different programming languages. They beg me to teach them [computer-aided design]. And they stay after and redo the robot and figure out what they did wrong. They try to do their best so they can go to competition. They enjoy it.
WACOAN: So, you decided to go into teaching because you noticed a lack of girls in the STEM field. Is that also why you started your after-school program for girls?
Cortez: Yes. In my engineering classes I noticed the females my first year, they kind of stood back, ‘OK you guys know how to work the tools. I’ll just do the paperwork.’ And I was like ‘No! Come on, y’all can do stuff too.’
The first year we called it Girls Gone Geek, and I had about 20 girls that would stay after school. They would teach each other how to use the tools. They would do different creative projects because I just interested them a little bit more. We hosted events for younger girls that first year.
I got them trained in the SciGirls curriculum from PBS. We had an actual trainer come out and certify them to teach that curriculum.
We hosted different events. We did stuff at Cameron Park Zoo. We did stuff at Mayborn [Museum]. We did stuff on our campus, and we would invite younger kids to come out. The girls would teach them, and I would just kind of be the manager in the back. They liked doing that, and we’ve been doing that every year. This past year was the first year we didn’t do it because of COVID.
WACOAN: Why do you think it’s important to encourage girls to enter the STEM field?
Cortez: Girls need a voice in everything. The technology and things that are being created — the buildings, phones, computers, everything — girls need a voice in that too. When a demographic is left out of the decision-making process, then they’re not thought about necessarily. So, they need to be there putting their voice in.
WACOAN: Have you noticed a change in the female demographic between college, high school and junior high school levels of education, or is it relatively the same?
Cortez: It’s about the same. When I was teaching at ITT [Technical Institute], the whole time I was there I had maybe five girls and a ton more boys. But at Baylor, it’s interior design, so it’s pretty much all girls. There are three boys that I had this last semester. But before, it’s always been all girls.
WACOAN: Is there a specific age group you prefer to teach?
Cortez: I love juniors and seniors because they’re getting ready to go out there and they’re getting more serious. They’re applying to colleges and things like that. We have a lot more fun. They take things a lot more seriously, and they get involved in the projects and they suggest things. They’re not giving me as much of a hard time as younger kids.
WACOAN: Have you noticed a difference in how different age groups take on the engineering material?
Cortez: There’s just a different personality as they grow up. My first year at Harmony they had me teaching fourth and fifth grade as well. They were cute, but it was tattletales all the time. They would do their work, but they were just ‘Miss, he’s not doing his work!’ ‘Miss, tell her to stop singing.’
Sixth grade, they are the roughest; they honestly are. They think they’re too grown, and they have a childish personality. So they want to be smart with you. Seventh graders are the same way. Eighth grade, they’re maturing a little bit more. They’re getting more into stuff, and they’re excited.
Freshmen, they start off still a little bit wild, but they’re a lot of fun. I usually go through intro with them and also eighth graders. Sophomores, they’re getting more serious; 11th through 12th grade, they’re super serious and they’re realizing, ‘I need to do better on my work. I need scholarships.’
WACOAN: I know you briefly mentioned how COVID-19 has impacted some of the after-school programs, but overall, how has it affected your day-to-day job as a teacher?
Cortez: We’ve all been virtual since April. So I’ve been working from home. All of my co-workers are on campus, except for two other people, but I’m working from home.
The kids have the option to be on campus or at home. I think a little over 100 out of 600 kids have opted to be on campus. So, it’s not very many. We’re doing everything still virtual. I hear about other schools being forced to teach students face to face and on the computer, and it’s like two different classes. But no, we just do it all on the computer.
We’re having to adjust curriculum because in engineering, everything is hands-on. Usually I have them working on different projects and things like that, but everybody’s at home so I’m having to improvise and be like ‘Just grab stuff from around your house.’ Some of them try to make up excuses saying they don’t have anything, and I’m like ‘You’ve got stuff! You’ve got a toilet paper roll or something.’ They still try to get away with stuff, but it’s been nice. Especially since I was going through treatments, it was kind of like the world became quarantine for me, so I had less of a chance of getting sick. Curbside opened up everywhere, which was great.
WACOAN: I read that you were diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in November 2019, how did you feel when you received the diagnosis?
Cortez: It was devastating. My sister passed away from cancer in 2006, but she had tumors around her uterus, so it wasn’t breast cancer. They did a genetics test, and it doesn’t run in my family, so I don’t know where it came from. But it was devastating.
I immediately thought about my sister, and I was freaking out. The surgeon that I had, [Dr. Robin Skrine], was awesome. She calmed me down. She told me ‘You’re not gonna die. You’re fine. But you’re gonna have to go through some stuff. Yes, you’re going to lose your hair. Yes, we recommend you getting a mastectomy.’ Those were the two main things that I didn’t want to do. But I had to do it. I had my mastectomy in June, and they did scans after that. So I’m cancer free at this point, but I’m still going through chemo pills until January or February to make sure I don’t have any cancer still left.
WACOAN: Congratulations on being cancer free. I know it must have been a long journey, but how was the treatment process for you?
Cortez: Baylor Scott & White [McClinton Cancer Center] is amazing. Their nurses really take care of you. My oncologist, [Dr. Tara Barnett], is very attentive. All of her nurses are very attentive. I feel like I got off easy because I caught it really early, and I didn’t have nausea or any of that. I still had to go through the chemo infusions. But I’m seeing people go through radiation and things like that, so I think I kind of got off easy. I hope it never returns, but it was a lot.
My grandma and my aunt would go with me to every appointment I had, and then COVID came in March, so they weren’t able to go with me. I was fine with that because I’m really independent and I just want to chill by myself. But it was cool that they wanted to come and talk to me. But COVID came and my grandma’s older so she couldn’t come anymore, and they wouldn’t let me have visitors anyway.
My last chemo infusion was on May 4, and I was kind of upset because no one was there with me to ring the bell or anything like that. But the nurses were acting kind of weird. They were like, ‘Oh, it’s your last day?’ And I was about to leave and one of them goes, ‘Are all those people outside for you?’ And I was like ‘What people?’ My co-worker Kristi Hill had set up this surprise with the cancer center nurses, and I walked out and there was between 40-50 of my students and 20 of my co-workers and my aunt too. It was really touching to me. It was awesome.
WACOAN: So Harmony was a big part of your community during the whole process?
Cortez: Yes. My honor society — I’m in charge of honor society as well — they tried to make it a secret, but they had meetings in my room, so it wasn’t really a secret. They did a fundraiser dodgeball tournament for me, and it was actually the last day we were on campus, March 6. It was on the news, and they put everything together. They raised I think almost $2,000 for me. The kids would pay to get out of class and to be in the dodgeball tournament. They did concession stands and things like that. It was all kid run. My school was super supportive.
WACOAN: Are your dog and chinchilla a part of your support community as well?
Cortez: Yes. My dog, Roxi, she always wants to be near me. I’ve got the door closed to my office right now, but before I closed it, she was trying to come in here with me. But she’s always wanting to be right next to me.
The chinchilla, she’s just crazy. She’s a mess, but we love her. The chinchilla was actually a class pet that my class of 2014 or 2015 seniors begged me to get. They were like, ‘Miss, we’ve never had a class pet!’ and I was like OK. So they all chipped in, and we got a chinchilla. And then they all left, and I was like, ‘Does someone want to take this chinchilla?’ But no, I wound up with her, and she’s still here with me.
Tiffani’s 5 Must-Have Items
1. Big earrings. I always have on big earrings. I usually have subdued makeup and subdued clothes, so that’s the accessory that I like to pop.
2. Flip flops. I don’t like having my toes covered. It’s kind of my claustrophobia thing.
3. Coffee. I love the Cowboy Coffee from Common Grounds.
4. Chips and queso. It’s hard to pick my favorite queso, but I’d say either Torchy’s or El Charro Tapatio.
5. Nail art by Mimi T at Regal Nails in Hewitt. I haven’t had my nails done since March, but she does amazing work.