North Carolina School District Gives STEM some STEAM

The data speaks for itself in Greene County, North Carolina, but it’s only part of the story. The real story comes from the district’s response to remote learning, and, most importantly, according to district leaders, the feedback the district is getting from students and families. Graduation rates have jumped from as low as 62% ten years ago to 94% in 2018-2019. What led to this success? Changing as the students change. For the first time in 20 years, students have a hand in their own learning.

Greene County Schools, a rural, agriculture-based district in North Carolina, has been on a decades-long journey to emphasize STEM, hands-on learning and technology to develop what STEM Education Director Jose Garcia calls a “well-rounded” education. Students create a network to accomplish educational tasks through their own voice instead of repackaging what is given to them.

All students in grades 6-12 have had their own devices since 2003, but online learning was not exciting and very traditional. Surveys indicated students were accessing modules, reading text, answering questions and moving on, with an occasional digital lab. Immediately, the pilot teachers realized they needed to make some changes. As Garcia says, “STEM needed some steam!”

While many districts begin STEM initiatives in the vocational areas, Greene County started in the content areas with 40 students and 3 teachers (including Garcia) guiding the program. STEM was embedded in forensics, honors math and honors Earth Science. To grow and sustain the STEM project, the district decided to implement what they call “Grand Challenges” which are semester-long projects that follow the engineering design process.

High school now has 28 STEM focused courses in ELA, math, science and vocational. For the younger grades (now including elementary) the district focused on creating quality courses using the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS). To speed up the process, Greene County decided to use Defined Learning as their “go-to” project-based learning resource because of its alignment to the grand challenges model. The district has created a repository of customized Defined Learning tasks to meet the needs of inexperienced teachers still building a STEM mindset. When the school year begins, teachers select from the repository to use in class or send home. The repository ensures that Defined Learning is used collectively, even if teachers move out of the district.

Greene County knew their approach was working when they submitted an application for state recognition and were identified as a model STEM program because of their curriculum and portfolio of evidence. With a diverse group of 1,402 students representing a mixture of high-performance and academic needs now enrolled each year in the program, the district shares their model with other schools hoping to implement something similar. According to Garcia, “Defined Learning speeds up the process. Vertical alignment from kindergarten through high school allows our program to be different at each step, changing as the students change. As students get better and acquire the skills, the program evolves and develops and we implement another approach. The goal is to keep ahead of the students, keep them engaged and focused on new models of thinking, which improves the work they produce.”

The district now uses a 4-year, deliberate approach to professional development. PLCs meet by grade level and across grade levels each summer, focusing on the following sequence:

  • Year 1: Understanding curriculum maps and pacing
  • Year 2: Adding STEM elements including Grand Challenges, collaboration across content areas, then mini challenges.
  • Year 3: Developing understanding of how to use the Learning Management System, including analyzing standards and packaging them into modules.
  • Year 4: Incorporating technology to instruct at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, using iPads and apps to generate and create student-centered learning using tools like green screens, drones and 3-D printers.

Greene County’s ground work paid off when the pandemic hit. Teachers were instantly able to make learning as engaging, personalized and self-guided as possible, using Defined Learning as a foundation. The district was already experimenting with a face-to-face flex model which they now plan to adjust to create mastery path courses, using Defined Learning as a critical resource for one of those pathways. Teachers use the district template to develop tasks, using Defined Learning as a scaffold and a resource that saves teachers time and provides quality tasks that allow for customization.

Garcia believes remote learning will never go away, there will always be pockets of it here and there. He believes blended and online enrichment, extension and foundational pathways can reach home school students who can engage in challenges and reverse a trend of declining enrollment in the district.
Preliminary data indicates that classrooms are maintaining hands-on learning even online. Familiarity with digital tools and the Canvas LMS meant that there were less issues than experienced by other districts because all stakeholders know how to navigate the system and submit work. Student survey feedback says that although students want to see more of their teachers to develop a relationship, they report a high rate of engagement in STEM focused courses.

“What I’ve come to understand as we came through this journey,” says Garcia, “is that it can’t be done alone. In order to educate students, there are so many components and factors, but the biggest one is to make sure that the students have a voice. If we tell them what to do, give them steps, they do not have a chance to be creative and they are not prepared for the future. We have to flip the traditional script of ‘because of this assessment, you should do this’ and allow the students to make connections with the curriculum and with the community to build a network. If teachers get comfortable talking about immigration policy, poverty, culture and social justice, students can figure out how those issues align to math standards. We want our students to be well-rounded, informed citizens. Leaders, not followers.”

Garcia believes that every student has a place in this type of learning: tinkerers, gamers, artists, musicians, the quiet and timid. The key piece is to allow students to find their likes, strengths and what they need to work on. They develop confidence and take pride in their final product, from not linking presentations and reading from a screen or index cards to speaking conversationally about topics they are passionate about. They are eager to move on to their next Grand Challenge and do it even better. They work in diverse groups, so students who normally would not speak to each other their entire education career join groups and become friends. No program is perfect, but this one continues to evolve and grow, with students leading the way.


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