This year, Mt. Vernon Community School Corp.’s curriculum has seen changes after administrators said they heard the clear call from STEM-related industries that hey need a larger workforce pool for the future.
The integration of science, technology, engineering and math isn’t new to the district, but it’s dedication to putting a stronger focus on those areas of study has increased with the hiring of three full-time STEM teachers across its three elementary schools and at Mt. Vernon Middle School, and with the addition of an elementary-level weekly specials class entirely for STEM, which the district’s third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students rotate through weekly with physical education, art, music and library time.
Amy Lovell and Kathy Tingwald both were teachers for the district prior to this school year, but both made the switch to become solely STEM teachers in the fall. Lovell teaches primarily at Mt. Comfort Elementary and Tingwald primarily at Fortville Elementary. Both split time at McCordsville Elementary to teach STEM classes there.
“The district had this position open, and at the end of last school year, I started thinking about making the change. It was time to try something new and different, so I decided to try it,” Lovell said. “It’s been fun to see the different grade levels and have all the different students. Sometimes, when I have extra time, I’ll pull in other grade levels as well, like a kindergarten class.”
Using the national Project Lead the Way curriculum, topics range from week to week and class to class based on its four strands – one computer science, one biomedical and two engineering.
“With our Project Lead the Way curriculum, we usually have some investigating first, and then we jump into some real-life problems from there,” said Tingwald, who previously taught first grade full time at Fortville Elementary and has taught with the district for 11 years. “It’s fun because it gets everybody on the same page and levels the playing field, so to speak.”
“For example, right now, we’re working on a module called ‘Variation of Traits,’ so the students are going to learn about what makes them unique, how traits work and how they inherited traits from their parents,” said Lovell, who has taught with the district for 19 years, primarily as a fourth-grade teacher at Mt. Comfort. “We also just finished a module on flight in third grade. Fourth grade just finished one on collisions, dealing with potential and kinetic energy as well as a computer science module that deals with coding and computers.
“Fifth-graders are working on a biomedical module called ‘Infection Detection,’ learning how their immune system works, and then there are another couple of classes doing robotics.”
Both Lovell and Tingwald completed two days of training during the summer to become certified in teaching the Project Lead the Way Curriculum.
“There has definitely been a learning curve,” Lovell said. “It is fun to see how the students think about how they could make their project better with additional supplies or further changes. Some students who normally are reserved in class do not hesitate to try things in our STEM classes and actually thrive in this environment.”
Each elementary school also has a robotics club thanks to a grant from TechPoint Foundation for Youth, an organization funded by Googenheim Life and Annuity Company and other organizations. Through the grant, the elementary schools received a robot for each of their clubs.
A third teacher, Brenda Shoenlein, also was hired to teach robotics to eighth-graders at Mt. Vernon Middle School. In the first part of the school year, her class focused on engineering projects and began with a catapult, where students learned how to make the objects fly better by analyzing the results in weight, drag, tension changes and aerodynamics.
“(Teaching) STEM is relatively new, and the state has really embraced it and made it something that is much more of an initiative by saying to the schools, ‘OK, let’s really dive into this,” Tingwald said. “These are 21st-century skills that we want to instill in the kids, and if I can get the kids started and energized, then when they get up to the high school level, it gives them a stronger base.”
BUILDING A MAKERSPACE
Changes and shift toward STEM also are continuing at Mt. Vernon High School, where a makerspace is being developed for students to build physical modules for various classes.
For example, an English or social studies teacher might request a visual project to go with a paper. The makerspace will serve as a collaborative room filled with art, craft and hardware supplies to inspire DIY projects. The makerspace also will offer a 3-D printer for students to create modules, and possibly a sewing machine or woodworking tools.
Mt. Vernon Community School Corp. officials said their efforts to advance STEM initiatives are an approach to pursuing a district-wide STEM certification from the Indiana Dept. of Education, a process that starts with a self-evaluation, application and rubric to measure implementation.
The IDOE states, “Schools are chosen to receive certification based on their commitment to teaching the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math throughout the entire school. STEM Certified Schools exemplify a highly non-traditional approach to education, employing a great deal of inquiry, project-based learning, community engagement, entrepreneurship, student-centered classrooms, integration into humanities and related arts, and out of school STEM activities. STEM Certified Schools accomplish this while following educational policies set by the state and excelling under the system of accountability.”