STEMmobile: A Catalyst for Learning in Rural Regions

Fifty-three feet of science sits in front of the K-8 Celina School. Twenty fifth graders shuffle around inside, zealously conducting experiments on stainless steel countertops under flat screen TVs.

Celina, a town smaller than the student body of some Tennessee high schools, is tucked away in the serene Cumberland mountains. That is exactly why the Upper Cumberland Rural STEM Initiative decided to park $350,000 worth of science equipment in front of the building.

Equipped with air conditioning, a generator, a satellite, and science lessons and supplies for students grades K-8, the self-sustaining mobile lab doesn’t even need as much as a power outlet.

The carpet lined walls, bright lights, and industrial grade metal drawers make the space feel worthy of a commercial lab, a huge draw for curious students and a far departure from the science equipment found in the majority of rural elementary and middle schools across Tennessee.

Bright eyed Celina students huddle around fifth-grade science teacher Donetta Birdwell. Birdwell is one of two STEM hub teachers at Celina School, selected to facilitate labs in the STEMmobile. While she is self-proclaimed STEM advocate with over a decade of experience at Celina, she says this kind of equipment is new to her students. Like many children in Tennessee, some Celina students don’t even have access to a computer at home.

That is what keeps Shirley Myers, STEM Hub manager for the Upper Cumberland Rural STEM Initiative, fighting to get the STEMmobile to even more schools.

“You might think everyone lives in a house like this, with bright lights and air conditioning, but they don’t. Even beyond the science, this is truly a treat for many of our students,” Myers said.

The science lessons, based on Tennessee science standards developed by the Upper Cumberland Rural STEM Initiative, range from heart rate to simple machines and building sail boats. Myers says often, what happens in the mobile lab will encourage students to go home and reproduce an experiment.

“We are just the catalyst. We show you the lab, and we show you the technology, but it’s up to you what you do with it once we leave,” Myers said.

Emily Daniels, principal at Celina K-8 School, says the momentum is obvious. Her staff is already receiving requests for more hands-on science activities, and has been inspired to open up science instruction to parents, planning regular science nights long after the STEMmobile leaves.

The mobile lab moves every week and costs roughly $50,000 to run a year between fuel, power, and moving it place to place. The STEMmobile trailer and its first year of operations were funded through a grant from the state legislature, the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN) and Tennessee Technical University. The mobile lab made stops at 20 districts in the Upper Cumberland region during the 2013-14 school year.

Because the grant that made the mobile lab free during its first year of operations has now expired, Myers and her team are exploring options to keep the STEMmobile available to districts at minimal cost

And for fifth graders like Celina student Autumn Lyle, this is the sweet sound of possibility.

“We would like to do this everyday,” Lyle said.

The STEMmobile is housed at Tennessee Tech in between school visits. If you are in the Upper Cumberland Region, keep your eyes peeled; you might just see this mobile classroom rolling by.

You can find more information about the STEMmobile and the Upper Cumberland Rural STEM Initiative online.