Changing How Students Think: Rutherford County Schools’ STEM Program

by, Stephanie Finley, Science Specialist, Rutherford County Schools

After teaching in the science classroom for 12 years, I knew it was time for a new endeavor that would challenge myself as an educator and that would challenge my students. In 2014, I began this journey by accepting the job as a STEM educator for Stewarts Creek Middle School in Rutherford County. Evolving into a STEM teacher meant facilitating student investigations and guiding them to think more critically.

The STEM classroom became a place solving the problems, where innovation was fostered. And students were exploring careers in STEM at a higher level by becoming engineers, architects, and biomedical scientists. Since 2014, the Rutherford County Schools has grown to 11 schools that facilitate a STEM program.

For the past three years, I have challenged my students to collaborate, think critically, and solve problems through real-world scenarios. I have moved away from prescribed or predetermined pathways with only a single answer to open-ended problems that students work to solve through hard work. This past semester we added a classroom motto:

“In this room we don’t do easy. We make easy happen through hard work and learning.”

This year in my classroom, students grade 6-8 took on the role of someone in the STEM field and were exposed to real-world challenges in which they used the Engineering Design Process (EDP) to solve. Here are a few examples:

  • Designing and building a water filtration device for a country with poor water quality and raise money to build a well in an area without clean water.
  • Designing and developing a therapeutic toy for a child with cerebral palsy.
  • Designing and constructing an innovative work space for today’s modern society—combining architecture and psychology (embodied cognition).

Students built prototypes, tested and evaluated these prototypes, collected and recorded data, and improved by going back through the EDP. Through the challenges, students learned what it was like to fail and try again, which built perseverance and determination.

Part of the students’ classroom experience was to also prepare and present original research at a couple of local STEM Expos. Students chose relevant issues in today’s society related to STEM research, engineering, agriculture, and technology. Using the EDP, each team tested variables, conducted detailed research, tested, improved, and re-tested until satisfactory results were acquired. Using OneNote Collaboration Space, students could work in partnership and share research and data through an online digital notebook. Students presented their original research to judges from local universities, businesses, and industry. Examples of my students’ original research are as follows:

  • The Train Stopper—students designed a device to help protect people stranded on train tracks in vehicles and warn the train’s conductors about the obstacles on the track.
  • Sunblock vs. Coral Reefs—students designed and created a biodegradable, nontoxic sunscreen
  • Now—students created a medical app that would allow the patient to treat themselves with “over-the-counter” medication, talk to medical professionals, and in severe cases, call 911 for emergency medical assistance.

In this endeavor to promote STEM education, students were also able to be a part of a robotics team. During the 2016 robotics season, more than 50 students took part in the Music City BEST Robotics Competition at Lipscomb University. The Stewarts Creek Robotics Team (SC Robotics) was judged on an engineering notebook, marketing presentation, team exhibit, spirit, and robot performance. We received fourth place out of sixteen teams. Most importantly, students learned to work together, problem solve, present, meet deadlines, engineer under pressure, and how to support others in all situations.

Our students are the future—they will be the ones to fill the deficit in STEM careers, so we need to change the way they think by giving them opportunities to think, collaborate, and problem solve. Let me end this blog with a few quotes from my former students:

  • “I didn’t know what I wanted to be until STEM.”
  • “STEM helped me decide on MIT as a college.”
  • “STEM helped me realize my dream of being a biomedical engineer.”
  • “I now want to be a forensic scientist when I grow up.”