Rob Rambach & Patrick Dempsey: 2016 Allen Distinguished Educator


Educators: Rob Rambach, Patrick Dempsey
School/District: Hixson Middle School
Location: Webster Groves, MO


After 15 years of service in a traditional public school setting, Rob saw a need to evolve his teaching philosophy in order to inspire the next generation of learners. At heart, Rob has always been an experiential learner, tinkerer, and maker. Seeing these gifts mirrored in his students, Rob sought to meld his passion for science and for making, by redesigning his curriculum through the lens of a maker. By replacing textbooks with tools and archaic labs with technology, Rob’s classroom evolved into a space for personal and collaborative exploration.

By integrating problem-based learning into his classroom, students are challenged with questions that require them to design, build, test, and then redesign prototypes. Through this process, students collaborate, ideate and construct solutions to real problems. These questions are designed to address issues within the home, school, and community. Once solutions are made, students are given an audience to share, teach, and learn. Not only does the audience make this work more authentic, but the nature of the questions allows the students to design for more than just the teacher. To both increase the scope of the student experience and provide a more global perspective, audiences range from collaborations with other schools in the district, peers in neighboring towns, and students in Ghana.

Using this hands-on approach, students see scientific concepts in action by applying them to real world situations. They begin to appreciate how these problems affect other people which not only builds empathy, but also cultivates connections with a larger world. By creating a curriculum focused on science and design, Rob seeks to cultivate a new class of makers, confident learners, empathetic citizens, and passionate explorers to guide generations


Seeing the value of technology in the classroom, Patrick has integrated technology into his classroom in innovative ways focusing on how technology can help students learn. With this value in hand and a lifestyle of tinkering and play, Patrick started robotics programs in two different middle schools that eventually expanded to two different high schools. Watching students learn and tackle problems by building and programing in after school robotics Patrick began to think how all students could solve problems to deepen their understanding of science. Design Thinking is used by Patrick to continually prototype his classroom. Students use this process as a framework for work as they solve real problems for real people while improving their understanding of science. 

Patrick was not satisfied with the disparity between students who had tools and guidance at home and those who do not. Empowering students to respond to their own needs, students built a mobile makerspace that is used by over 350 students in their daily work in science. Providing all students with an understanding of how to use tools to solve problems levels the playing field and increases student opportunity.

8th graders in Patrick's class spend their time questioning current solutions, designing new ideas, and building solutions to transform and improve the world around them. As in real life, students work on a series of projects. Global issues of water, energy, and waste guide the problems students work through. By collaborating with students in Ghana, students experience how an understanding of science and knowledge of tools can have a great impact on people in the world who are in great need. Patrick works to incite students to create solutions by exposing them to real problems and equipping them with the tools and understanding to improve the world around them.

View Rob and Patrick's Video Microdocumentary | View Rob and Patrick's DIY Guide: Circuit Arcade | View Patrick Dempsey's Roadmap on: Practical Solutions for Classroom Innovation | View Rob Rambach's Roadmap on: Embracing Failure in the Classroom