“Can I use this exclusively?!” When Katie MCain, the 6-12 instructional supervisor for Bartlett City Schools in Tennessee, heard this from one of her teachers, she knew the district’s plan for STEM and Project-Based Learning (PBL) was going better and beyond what she could have imagined.
McCain, a former Algebra teacher for Shelby County outside of Memphis, supports all subjects, from French and math to Science and Social Studies for the brand-new suburban Bartlett City Schools. Seven years ago, Shelby County, previously one large district, divided into 5 separate suburban districts. The new Bartlett High School is one of the largest in the state.
Since its inception, STEM has always been on the forefront for Bartlett City Schools. Even area residents are surprised to know that the area is one of the top locations for medical device manufacturing in the country. “We knew STEM had to play a major role,” says McCain. Health science offerings and certifications “exploded” in the new district.
One elementary school features a STEAM honors program where a cohort of a class per grade level follows an interdisciplinary, Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach to learning. Each middle school autonomously decides how to dedicate staff, allocate materials, and whether to integrate STEM with traditional science courses or offer stand-alone STEM courses. Middle school programming includes a STEM-focused academic exploration period. The high school opened with 2 sections of STEM courses using CTE course codes and funding. The program grew to 12 sections within 4 years, with 1 full-time STEM teacher and two teachers that teach sections. Bartlett students can now participate in an interdisciplinary pathway from grades 8-12, starting with STEM 1 and ending with STEM 4, which includes a practicum.
With STEM programming firmly in place, the district is now focusing on increased access to STEM and PBL for all students, culminating with more students taking STEM courses in high school. McCain feels that by starting young, teachers can help students see how traditional subject areas are connected. In order to accomplish this, the district focused on scheduling challenges and training for teachers, helping them understand and appreciate the differences between traditional teaching and STEM-based teaching. They used a trial and error approach as a training mechanism. This required a mindset shift. “I think a lot of people just realized that they need to put the problem in front of the students, then get out of their way. Most educators want to be in control and know what the outcome will be,” says McCain. She encourages teachers to put twists on traditional lessons to include more project-based elements, where kids are driving the learning and engagement.
3 years ago, McCain and her elementary counterpart were looking for a STEM program aligned to Tennessee standards for their elementary gifted students. Advanced Programming for Exceptional Students (APEX) teachers wanted something specific and completely different from the general education coursework for their pull-out program. She reached out to a colleague from the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN): “Hands down, she said Defined Learning right off the bat.” McCain describes the immediate results as amazing. “We got to see kids who usually don’t want to make a mistake, the conversations they were having, how excited they were about presenting… they had no fear! It’s completely changed the culture.” APEX students typically perceived to lack a growth mindset were given the chance to explore.
The success of the APEX experience motivated McCain to implement a pilot with the high school STEM teacher. The same things happened. The teacher fell in love with the Defined Learning program. She loved how easy it was to make things fit. Soon after the pilot, the school, like most of the country, transitioned to remote learning. McCain says the teachers and students have had no issues converting to remote learning because students can collaborate through their devices. (In Bartlett, all K-5 students have an iPad or laptop and students in 6-12 have a macbook). Because devices are not a barrier to overcome, virtual collaboration through Defined Learning has been seamless.
Defined Learning is now provided to all middle schools across the state of Tennessee for free by the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN). As a result, all three high school teachers and some middle school teachers are now using Defined Learning for remote and in-person learning. The district offers professional development in a tiered cohort model. APEX teachers were trained first, followed by teachers who would serve as “go-to” people to help their colleagues. McCain describes the professional learning as “top-notch”, with flexible options for new teachers who did not have initial training, asynchronous learning teachers can access on-demand and 30 minute webinars for groups or specific teachers needing support.
The teachers like how tasks are presented in ready-to-go products, but they can tweak and change each task to make it their own based on the length of the lesson, how often they use it, how much time to take for each section and what resources to use. McCain is especially excited about a 4th/5th grade teacher who did the Tiny House task with her students.
As Bartlett City Schools continues to focus on access to STEM programming for all students, McCain describes the district’s use of Defined Learning as vital. “It is now almost a necessity, especially at this time. The kids can’t build a roller coaster. They can’t touch the same materials or work in a group like they’re used to. It’s been a game changer.”
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