STEM Surge

Georgia’s K-12 Schools are Promoting and Encouraging STEM-related Learning and Activities in the Classroom and Beyond

By Kelsey E. Green

A third grade boy’s presentation about the endangered Monarch butterflies propelled his Rocky Branch Elementary School classmates to action. There must be something we can do, they told their teacher.

They did, by using an engineering design process to try to solve a global problem.

The third graders at the Oconee County school in northeast Georgia researched why Monarchs are dying. They discovered that a certain kind of foreign, and deadly, milkweed had been introduced to the Monarch’s diet. They then thought of different solutions before deciding on a schoolwide project, the Butterfly Garden. With the help of students at North Oconee High School (next door to Rocky Branch) and area professionals, each grade level took turns planting and caring for native plants that are a part of a healthy Monarch diet.

This is just one example of how students across Georgia are making progress toward solving large-scale issues through methods they learned in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum. And what they’re learning as early as elementary school may spark their desire to pursue careers in engineering and related fields.

“We have a high-performing population and we know our kids need to be learning what they need to know for the job market of the future,” says Rocky Branch Elementary School Principal Evelyn Wages.

STEM Origins

The STEM acronym dates to the 1990s, when the National Science Foundation created the four letters that now are a buzzword in education. President Obama challenged the education system to create 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2021 – and the country had passed the halfway mark in 2016, according to the White House.

In Georgia, new schools have opened with the goal to become STEM-certified, while previously established schools have taken steps to implement STEM components. As of September 2016, 37 schools in Georgia are STEM-certified while others are pursuing the certification, a three-year process overseen by the state Department of Education (Georgia DOE). “It’s a whole paradigm shift on the way teachers teach,” says Gilda Lyon, STEM Coordinator at Georgia DOE.

In addition, out of 50 schools in 70 countries, at least 12 schools in Georgia have been awarded STEM certification through AdvancED, an education accrediting agency. Sagamore Hills Elementary School in DeKalb County and Tritt Elementary School in Cobb County are two schools that have been awarded dual STEM certification through Georgia DOE and AdvancED. Educator events that promote STEM and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) curriculum and concepts include The Georgia STEM Forum, which will be held October 24-25, 2016 in Athens.

School Achievements

In 2012, the Marietta Center for Advanced Academics was the first school in Georgia to receive STEM certification. Its program has served as a model for many schools to find their starting point.

“Our school got involved with STEM the year we opened,” says Elaine Reisenauer, STEM lead teacher and gifted teacher for the Marietta school. “We were a magnet school with a future outlook of becoming a STEM-certified school. The first year we focused on improving our math and science curriculum and did a lot of research on what STEM is.”

STEM is more than just science, technology, engineering and mathematics, she says. Having an engineering design process is one of many requirements for certification. The Marietta Center for Advanced Academics constructed the school’s engineering design process that the students use throughout the day. Its process involves these six steps:

  • Ask the question
  • Research
  • Imagine what if or what could be solutions
  • Plan how to solve the problem
  • Create
  • Ask how I can improve

Along with its engineering design process, the Marietta Center for Advanced Academics also created a makerspace for students to use various types of materials – common household items and not-so-common materials, including industrial tables – to create and correct their designs.

Another requirement in the STEM certification process is getting support from the community, including local engineering, architecture and construction firms. The Marietta Center for Advanced Academics’ key partners include Lockheed Martin, Kennesaw State University and companies such as NoveList, Microsoft and “Minecraft: Education Edition.”

“We infuse skills within instruction that sets us apart from other schools in an authentic way,” Reisenauer says. “We bring these experts in so our students can see who they can become and what opportunities lie ahead in the STEM field.”

Looking toward their students’ future pushed other schools, such as Rocky Branch Elementary, to join the STEM movement. “When the school opened, we looked at what we needed, and we started working on math instruction first,” Wages says. “We spent about five years on improved math instruction – getting conceptual math. Along the way we hired science folks and ended up with a person at each grade level with a passion for science. Then we started hearing things from the state level about what STEM is. We went to a few conferences and we heard people from around the state looking to hire in STEM fields and not finding people eligible in Georgia.”

Teachers in the school’s “Critical Friends” group, which met monthly to study the state rubric and become STEM certified, began looking at different “Engineering is Elementary” curriculum kits. They purchased one for each grade level that most closely fit that grade’s standards to help the teachers grasp what STEM is and how to teach it to their students. They adapted what they had learned from those kits to better suit their school’s needs and students’ learning styles, says Angela Harris, the school’s STEAM teacher. Rocky Branch was granted STEM certification in 2014 after a thorough inspection of every classroom.

This is the basic process that every school must go through to become certified, but every school’s focus is different. Some schools may have a certain number of students on the STEM learning path, while others may have all their students participating in STEM.

The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology is a strictly STEM school, and the first high school in the state to be STEM certified, in 2013. Its rigorous program includes five required advanced placement classes, an internship and a paper with corresponding 20-minute presentation about their internship for all students. STEM has impacted its students’ futures in ways teachers and administrators at the metro Atlanta school say they never imagined.

“What we have seen over time is that we thought our focus was on college and career prep,” says Principal IV Bray. “It is still that, but it’s deeper. We have found with two classes that have graduated college, they aren’t – and don’t need to be – thinking where they want to go to college, but thinking where they want to go to graduate school.”

Much like the Rocky Branch Elementary students working to save the Monarch butterflies, Carrollton Elementary School in west Georgia and the STEM Academy at Bartlett in Savannah have taken unique approaches to the curriculum. “Curiosity is naturally a part of who they are at this young age,” says Melanie Brooks, Vice Principal and administrator for Carrollton Elementary’s STEM initiative. “We help them develop the problem solving side of themselves. Then, we focus on channeling their imaginative side into the problem and show them how they can change and affect the world around them.”

Carrollton Elementary, in 2013, was the state’s first K-3 elementary school to become STEM-certified by Georgia DOE. Then it was one of seven K-12 schools statewide with STEM certification.

Carrollton Elementary teachers introduce their students to STEM and tell them what it can mean for their future. They have been amazed at the impact on career choices as the students have moved through the Carrollton City School System, which integrates science, technology, engineering and math disciplines across kindergarten through 12th grade. As high schoolers, former Carrollton Elementary students often take internships with companies such as Southwire, the world’s largest wiring company, to supplement their STEM learning experiences. During their internships, students designed an app to help the company monitor their machines, making them more efficient and productive. Southwire is working to patent the app.

Near the Georgia coast, the STEM Academy at Bartlett has incorporated the Grand Challenges of Engineering into all of its classrooms and subjects. The Grand Challenges of Engineering include worldwide problems, such as how to make clean water more available and how to solve world hunger. STEM Academy at Bartlett, a Chatham County school that received STEM certification in 2015, brings in professionals from the community to work with the students. “We’re not about just having them come in and provide volunteer work. They sit down and work with students to solve those problems,” says Principal Peter Ulrich. “It’s inspiring and humbling because they look at same problem, and the kids are asking hard questions, ‘Why can’t we solve it like this?’”

The STEM Academy at Bartlett was named the nation’s best middle school STEM program in 2016 by the STEM Advisory Board for the Future of Education Technology Conference, held annually in Orlando, Fl. Ulrich says the school has been using the award to teach its students and push the teachers toward future excellence.

“Being named the No. 1 school in the U.S. is very exciting and humbling,” Ulrich says. “Now it’s something we have to earn every day. We’re always trying to balance the idea of excitement of success and accepting failure. We know we’re not always going to get it right. That’s why we have trial and error and redesign in the classroom, and in the world – it’s a constant process. You’re not always going to get it in one lesson or one class. It’s everywhere; it’s every day.”