Sharing the Tennessee Model: Building a Statewide Network for STEM

TSIN Hub Directors pictured left to right: Wesley Hall, TSIN; Jack Rhoton, ETSU Northeast TN; Sally Pardue, Upper Cumberland; Alfred Hall, West TN; Vicki Metzgar, Middle TN; and Marilyn Roddy, STEMspark East TN. Not pictured: Keri Randolph, SE TN.

Since its establishment in 2010, the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN) has established a strong network to support STEM education throughout the state. In June, TSIN shared the accomplishments of its Network and six regional Hubs during a panel session at the Tennessee STEM Leadership Academy sponsored by ORAU. The discussions highlighted the success of the network’s investments across the state, how teachers have interacted with the Hubs, regional efforts to support STEM, and the continuing priorities for STEM in Tennessee. The following highlights are from the panel’s discussion.

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 What is the Tennessee model for building a strong STEM network?

Wes Hall, TSIN: TSIN is comprised of a network of ten platform schools and six regional hubs. The Hubs impact 109 school districts and are active in every county in the state. They serve as the nucleus of regional STEM activity, representing a formal partnership among school districts, post-secondary institutions, business, and community organizations. The Hubs work to engage students in STEM education, create pathways for girls and minorities in STEM, develop strong STEM teachers, and raise awareness for STEM in their regions.

What has been the biggest outcome of the work of the hub in your region?

Sally Pardue, Upper Cumberland Rural Hub: Strong teachers are the heart of the Hubs. Each Hub has different resources and is unique because they respond to local needs and tie local resources to more opportunities to continue the conversation about STEM.

Marilyn Roddy, STEMspark East TN Hub: The Hubs are the best resource for STEM in the regions. We are seen as a unifier for all of the many efforts to support STEM education. We have worked to create awareness about STEM education and the need for students to gain strong STEM skills so that they can be competitive when they enter the workforce. The East TN Hub alone has 43 signed working agreements with a variety of organizations supporting STEM education such as government agencies, non-profits, informal education organizations such as museums and the Boys and Girls Club, public and private schools as well as businesses. We are keeping true to the model of “STEM for All.”

Alfred Hall, West TN Hub: In West TN, the Hub works to connect people together to drive the conversation about STEM in our region. We have reached out to every school district in West TN so they know who to go to for STEM resources. The Hub is the central place that addresses all aspects of STEM education within the urban and rural areas of our region. This spring we hosted our annual Innovations in K-12 STEM Education conference that brought together leaders from industry, business, education, and government to discuss workforce needs and strengthening the STEM pathway for students.

Vicki Metzgar, Middle TN Hub: There has been a growing realization of the power of the network. We have created opportunities beyond the original scope of the grant and provided teachers with partners and opportunities to develop their skills that they never had before. And the results are showing up in the classrooms. Just this week over 80 teachers attended a professional development session focused on STEM and Chemistry. A teacher from Manchester has set up a new hydroponic lab in the back of her classroom so her students could understand different aspects of the water cycle and agriculture. Students in Clarksville are now working closely with the local extension office to study food production from conception to consumption.

How have the Hubs sparked STEM innovation in your region?

Sally Pardue, Upper Cumberland Rural Hub: We are proud to have developed the STEMmobile which is a mobile teaching lab that travels to schools in a 20 county region covering 7500 square miles. During the 2013-14 school year over 6935 children visited the STEMmobile. After participating in one of the standards-based lessons utilizing the latest in technology offered by the STEMmobile, students’ post-test showed a 30% increase. We are proud that we could introduce rural students to advanced technology and that teachers have been able to use the STEMmobile to strengthen their classroom teaching.

Working with industry and professionals to create a STEM pathway for students to enter the workforce has been a major theme of our work. Can you give examples of how professionals can work with schools?

Vicki Metzgar, Middle TN Hub: For the Middle TN Hub the dynamic that has developed between the local business partners and the schools has become an important innovation. Business partner Aegis Sciences brought in groups of teachers and students from Stratford STEM Magnet High School for a two-day workshop to talk about what it takes to become a scientist. A Bailey STEM Middle School student video project chronicled a unit on energy efficiency and became a finalist in a national competition sponsored by Samsung. The Harpeth River Watershed Association worked with students to develop citizen scientists. These partnerships helped students see real-world applications of what they are learning and that is important to keeping students engaged and excited about science and STEM.

Sally Pardue, Upper Cumberland Rural Hub:For professionals, the time commitment to work with schools can be overwhelming. We help break that down so that busy professionals can have meaningful interactions with classrooms and students. We encourage teachers to communicate with professionals through utilizing multiple platforms such as Skype, conference calls, and other online communications. The Hub has produced videos available on YouTube that highlight STEM careers so that teachers can easily access these throughout the year.

How have the Hubs worked with teachers and administrators to share best practices?

Vicki Metzgar, Middle TN Hub: Changing the culture in schools takes time. We work off the belief that STEM is for all. Stratford STEM Magnet High School has had a dramatic shift since adopting STEM. Students now understand that expectations are high. They are engaged. Teachers are seeing that they can teach all students with a relevant STEM curriculum. The school has seen growth over the past four years, but it will take perhaps up to eight years to see a great improvement.

Jack Rhoton, ETSU Northeast Hub: Teachers form the foundation of a great school so the best investment we can make is to support the classroom teacher. The Northeast TN hub awarded $138,000 in mini-grants to teachers so they could purchase STEM resources for their classrooms.

Alfred Hall, West TN Hub: The Hub has made it a priority to develop STEM leadership in the districts so that principals understand what comprises a STEM school. A classroom steeped in STEM looks and sounds different. It is noisy. Students who are engaged in active learning need to get up and move about, interact through group projects, and conduct experiments. To an outsider this can seem chaotic at times, but in a STEM school this is an essential part of the learning experience. We encourage teachers to build alliances with other teachers in their building so that STEM teachers are not working in isolation. There is a lot of discussion about scaffolding so that students develop basic skills needed to pursue higher-level learning like research skills and analysis. It is important to work across the entire school to build these skills in students.

SallyPardue, Upper Cumberland Rural Hub: We encourage math teachers to grab a science teacher and take them to a math conference, and so forth, so that teachers can see what skills their students will need to develop to be competitive in the work place and for higher-level learning.

Wes Hall, TSIN: The SE TN Hub trained over 2500 teachers through offering intensive professional development around cross-curricular ideas and deep content knowledge.

How has your Hub encouraged and supported students interested in STEM?

Alfred Hall, West TN Hub: The West TN Hub has sponsored student competitions and challenges to spark student interest in STEM such as student essay contests and the Memphis Zoo Challenge to redesign the aging Herpetarium. The STEM Ambassadors program aligns college students studying STEM with K-12 schools. These students have served as mentors and tutors. The Hub also publishes STEM spotlights that capture STEM professionals in action and on the job to expose students to various STEM professions.

Vicki Metzgar, Middle TN Hub: The Middle TN Hub sponsors a STEMExpo, which showcases projects from over 300 students. Professionals from regional businesses and industry serve as evaluators and support student awards.

The T in STEM stands for technology. What have the Hubs done to support the use of technology in classrooms?

Marilyn Roddy, STEMspark East TN Hub: Our Hub has partnered with the University of Tennessee to hold professional development on technology in the classroom including how to incorporate GIS into lesson plans.

Wes Hall, TSIN: The Hubs support the platform schools in their region. L&N STEM Academy and Innovation Academy utilize a 1:1 technology philosophy for teaching so that each student has access to a computer and teachers utilizes multiple communications platform in their classrooms. We are proud that these two school have been named Apple Distinguished Schools due to their integration of technology in the classroom. In addition, the SE STEM Hub has worked to encourage integration of technology in the schools through hosting EdTech conferences. This fall our platform school in Chattanooga will open a Fab Lab. Students will have access to a state of the art maker space to be able to take their innovations from concept to production.



One Response to “Sharing the Tennessee Model: Building a Statewide Network for STEM”

  1. Kristen Beahm says:

    I applaud and thank you for your efforts to bring more STEM opportunities to the widest range of students. I also have a suggestion. Teens need places outside of the traditional school system to learn about specific areas of interest in self-initiated ways. I would love to see a resource for teens who are self-learners (I think you’ll find self-described “geek” kids very frequently fall in this category). I envision a place where they can get individualized support for their own passions, projects and interests and trade ideas with like-minded teens. Perhaps a city-wide STEM club for teens, a teen project incubator, or a program to hook up curious, self-motivated teens with mentors who could help them get past the rough spots in their individual endeavors. (And the mentors might benefit from some refreshing out-of-the box ideas, or future interns and employees.)

    My 16-year-old son has repeatedly over the years started projects, researched innovative tech and science fields, and imagined tech and science solutions to current problems. (Among his projects and interests are: building his own computer, learning code & writing apps; experimenting with photosynthesis-based solar panels and other renewable energy sources; thinking through how to build a better STEM school using intensive game-based, realistic computer models; and modeling satellite-based solar energy systems). As you can see, his interests are very diverse, but also very specific. He’s very innovative, his ideas are typically inter-disciplinary, and he learns best by immersing himself in a project. But when he reaches a road-block in a project or area of self-study, there’s nowhere he can reach out for help.

    I think there are a lot of students out there like my son, and there’s a sad lack of support for them. How often have I thought, “If only I could help him find someone who could point him in the right direction (on a specific problem)…. he could take himself so far with just the right bit of mentoring at crucial times.” This type of STEM support is not going to happen in a typical school environment where a teacher has to teach to a test and at a level accessible to all students in the classroom. And the handful of innovative programs (such as Vanderbilt’s SSMV program) are too exclusive and/or do not provide support for self-initiated study or projects.

    Current STEM education efforts are very broad, while students’ passions are typically very specific (I’d refer you to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about passions, or his book “The Element”). How can we better support these student’s passions? A kid whose idea of a good time is thinking about how to capture dark matter to fuel our future energy needs is likely to be bored by the broad and shallow topics taught in a typical high school science class. (Although, I fully support our school system in providing the strong foundations in math and science these kids will need.)

    If we want to fully support STEM education, we need to first support individual passions and interests, capture students’ imaginations and harness their natural curiosity. That will translate into better performance in school academics as students realize the need for strong foundational skills to support their personal goals.

    Thanks for listening!

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