photography by Marci Lambert and Jane Schneider
L to R front: Sabrina Curley, Dari Doby, Chris Dufour, Nancy Lieberman, Anne Raheem, Drew Van DeVuurst. Back: Carl Bledsoe, Vance Hudson, Roger Li, Gray Yoder
Walk into Shelli Brasher’s STEM class at Collierville High School, and you’ll likely be greeted by the whine of table saws and hand drills. On a bright December morning, the room is alive with activity. In one corner, an Indian girl sporting safety glasses drills a hole in her board. Two lanky teenage boys stand nearby at a table saw, taking turns cutting planks of wood.
This class, a mix of sophomores, juniors, and seniors (there are 300 students enrolled in the program), is divided into teams and each group is trying to determine how best to construct a catapult or trebuchet, a sophisticated sling from the Middle Ages. As part of their grade, the team’s apparatus must meet a stringent set of guidelines that demonstrate whether math calculations are sound and physics questions correctly answered. Their catapults are also tested to see how far each shoots, and whether the force of the blow can actually knock down a fabricated wall.
“These kids are high achievers, they’re not used to not getting it the first time. And they’re competitive, they try to outdo each other,” says Brasher.
Competition plays an active role in the class. Brasher is constantly looking for STEM-related contests her students can enter. The Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation’s call for helicopter designs led to two of her students making the winner’s circle. Sophomore Vance Hudson, walked away with the $1,000 grand prize and a trip to the company’s Connecticut plant, classmate Sabrina Curley placed as a finalist.
Hands-on projects, like those they tackle in Brasher’s class give students the opportunity to see how science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts come into play to solve real-world problems; skills that educators hope will be transferable to jobs in the workplace.
“If kids are gifted in math and science, it gives many an opportunity to see beyond medicine as a place to use those skills,” says Brasher. “STEM opens doors to anything with a major in science.”
Interest in STEM growing
Classes like this one have been quietly percolating in other schools around Shelby County for the past two decades. But with the adoption of the Common Core Standards, the state has gotten more interested in ramping up efforts to grow and strengthen STEM offerings.
In September, Governor Bill Haslam officially designated Southwind High School as a STEM Platform School, one of six in the state that will serve as a demonstration site for “incubating, deploying, and sharing innovative and best practices in STEM education in Tennessee.”
As a 1991 graduate of East High School, principal Eric Harris remembers the STEM classes he took as a teen. East was the district’s first high school to be approved to teach a STEM track in the mid-1980s. But Harris says the class was much more theory based then, and their tools were limited to the use of protractors and simple circuit boards.
“Now, it’s more hands-on, the kids build things, they go through the process of failures required to reach success,” he says. “The students learn from their mistakes.” Today, East High offers five engineering tracks that enable teens to hone in on topics like biotech, energy, and civil engineering. About 100 students from across the county also participate in the program through the STEM Virtual School, where classes are held online, coupled with weekly visits to East’s campus for lab time.
The teens’ achievements are being noticed. Last year, East High graduated 12 STEM seniors who received more than $2 million in college scholarships.
Developing talent at Collierville
Though the STEM program is newly launched at Collierville High, having Brasher at the helm is a logical progression for this math educator, who has long been interested in teaching science. For two years, she worked at the county office, heading up OPTIONS, a STEM program funded through the National Science Foundation aimed at introducing teen girls to science and technology. While there, Brasher got to see other STEM classrooms around the country. She was impressed with what her peers were doing and has brought some of those best practices into her own classroom.
Here, homework and tests are swapped for team projects that must be completed in class (eliminating parent participation). Brasher’s role is as a facilitator and guide to students, helping them find the answers to fulfill project requirements. They must also keep in mind course objectives, which are clearly stated on a bulletin board up front. Another departure: Projects can be completed more than once. “Failure is not an option,” says Brasher, “Each project must work, so they continue until it does.”
Take, for example, the Pringles Challenge. This engineering task requires students to build a container from index cards that will hold one potato chip intact through the U.S. mail as it’s delivered back to the classroom. Brasher shows me several crinkled envelopes that clearly telegraph failure, but one we open contains a whole chip. The student had unlocked the secret.
This project, as well as many others the teens work on throughout the year, is a way for students to see physics, engineering, and math principles at work. Recognizing direct applications for such concepts makes learning much more relevant. The aim, ultimately, is to get kids thinking about STEM fields as a possible career path.
“There’s so much hands-on learning here. It’s just a different class than anything offered in our school,” notes Collierville High Principal Russell Dyer. “I’d personally love to see us grow it and get more advanced so the corporations at our doorstep could come in as partners.”
Currently, Brasher is working with several other STEM teachers to develop a curriculum that would enable public schools across the state to grow STEM programs. But for her students, the future is now.
Optional School Open Houses
• East High Open House • January 16, at 6 p.m. • STEAM program (which adds an art component) starts next year at Fairfield Middle School in Midtown. Open house • January 13, at 6 p.m. Christian Brothers University Buckman Hall - Spain Auditorium
For a listing of all Optional School Open Houses, visit our website • memphisparent.com/Memphis-Parent/Living-in-the-Moment/December-2013/Opotional-Schools-Open-House-Schedule/