How We Teach: STEM, STEAM and new skills

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Old-school education has undergone a metamorphosis.

Back in the day, what students were expected to learn in school was writing, reading and arithmetic.

In the new teaching paradigm, students need to know how to work effectively as a team, communicate their ideas, evaluate and analyze and find solutions to obstacles.

“That’s the point of STEM for students — to think critically, communicate, collaborate and problem-solve,” said Michelle Edwards, technology coordinator for Wilson County Schools.

Science, technology, engineering and math classes as well as camps and programs help children have hands-on time with the subjects they are studying.

“It really helps them to understand more of how to do things and using their common sense to build upon what they have learned and to have time to conference with one another about what they have done, to then reflect upon it and then create something even better,” said Michelann Rogers, Wells Elementary School first grade teacher. “They are all about this. They love it. They pay attention more when you are teaching your lesson so that they can understand what you want from them, so that they can utilize the technology. It’s 100% better than sitting there and lecturing to them.”


Springfield Middle School Principal Marquis Spell is old enough to remember when students in his classes were in rows of desks in front of the teacher.

“It used to be, ‘You are going to sit in these rows and I’m going to give it to you, and you are going to give it back to me,’ but that’s just not the way it is anymore. That’s the old-school piece,” Spell said. “Get out of the rows if you are in rows. At least give your kids opportunities to talk to one another and share, briefly on-task share, and then we’ll come back.”

The new approach is to let kids work in groups. The teacher would give them what they need and then sit back and let them fail, then bring them back and talk about it, then send them back again to solve the problem on their own.

This year, all Wilson County middle schools have new STEM labs and the opportunity for students to take STEM as an elective.

“We just had our STEM lab put in this summer,” Spell said. “I have been scheduling kids into that class. I am looking forward to it. I think it is going to be great, and it’s going to energize the kids.”

Part of the logic of STEM is to let students explore their own minds for ideas to solve the problem at hand.

“You are going to fail,” Spell said. “You have to document it. You have to redo it until it comes out in the finished product. That’s called life. When we do things and we are not successful, how do we bounce back from that particular piece and do it again until we get it to where it needs to be?”


“The STEM lab will typically be used where the student is presented with a challenge or a problem, and they work together usually as a team, or in groups, to develop something to find a solution to that problem,” said instructional technology facilitator Joseph Hayes of Wilson County Schools. “For example, if they are reading a story in the first grade about the three little pigs, first grade students could be given the challenge of designing a house that could withstand the force of the big bad wolf’s breath.”

At a STEM lab at Wells Elementary School this week, Hayes described the wide range of emerging technologies that teachers can employ as aids.

Dash and Dot robots and Spheros robotic balls can be used for science lessons using computer coding with apps on Chromebooks and iPads.

If the science lesson is on force and motion, students can build test platforms and test acceleration, velocity and momentum.

The data can be retrieved to create charts and data comparisons.

The robots can be incorporated into a STEM challenges where the students build contraptions to perform tasks.

Google Expeditions virtual reality goggles allow students to go anywhere in the world or in space.

“It is taking a field trip without even getting on a bus,” Hayes said.

The classrooms have a MakerBot Replicator 3D printer that allows students to design 3D images using a computer program like Tinkercad.

“They use shapes, triangles, circles, squares, common shapes, and they will build their design using these common shapes,” Hayes said. “Then the 3D printer will print their design when they are finished.”

The 3D printer could be used to print an action figure or character from a book students might be reading.

“If they are doing a science lesson on adaptations, they could actually design a creature’s adaptation on the 3D printer,” Hayes said. “For example, if the teeth were for chewing, they could design those teeth with the 3D printer.”

The lab has a green screen children can use to make their own movies.

Students will write scripts, perform and incorporate images of faraway places for their setting.

Additionally, there are multiple science kits, more robotics, magnetic blocks and lots of things for students to build with as they complete STEM activities.


In the last few years, art was added to STEM, which is not surprising since artistic students have always used their minds to create things.

“The STEAM program allows us to draw in students who are more creative thinkers as well,” said Michelle Edwards. “That leads to more ideas, which leads to more creativity, which leads to more critical thinking and innovations.”

“Some of our greatest inventions have come from artists because they have that mind that is critical in order to create new things,” said Will Edwards, a science teacher at Hunt High School.

Spell said it’s amazing how artistic children’s brains work and the things they see.

“That’s going to pay off for those kids,” Spell said.


The emphasis on STEM education has caused educators to take another look at the value of vocational training in schools.

The Wilson Academy of Applied Technology was built around the community’s needs, said Cheryl Wilson, associate superintendent of Wilson County Schools. The early college offers course pathways in applied technology, science, biotechnology and information technology, all designed to prepare students for jobs at companies right here in Wilson County.

“Our schools today have course offerings that are aligned to, and need to be aligned to, what our businesses are. I am complete agreement with that,” Wilson said. “We should know that in five years from now, these are the jobs that Wilson County is looking at.”

Students can then be prepared to seize those opportunities.

Educators say it’s important to remember that going to a four-year college is not the most important thing for every child.

“Even some students who are capable of going to do a four-year degree may not want to do a four-year degree,” Michelle Edwards said. “It depends on their passion. It’s important that we build these relationships with our students so that we know who they are. We can help them explore those passions, and if they want to go to a four-year college and that’s their goal, then we help them get to that point.

“If they don’t, then we need to have options available,” she said. “We need to teach them those same four skills: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and problem-solving. Regardless of where they want to go, you drive them toward it, and you help them meet their goals. You can’t put children in the same mold. They are individuals. We need to teach them the skills that they need and allow them to follow the path that they want to follow.”