Making the Grade: STEM academies open avenue for creativity

Picture Source: AJC.com

While many school districts offer students the chance to hone specific skills through high school magnet programs, educators in the Cherokee County system decided the best way to get kids involved in specialized fields was to start them early — in grade school. Three years ago, they rolled out an initiative called Cherokee Academies to create incubators of science, technology, engineering, math and fine arts in the lowest grades with the goal of inspiring students to pursue those fields into high school and beyond.

“Across Cherokee County, the state and the nation, it’s not uncommon to hear from business leaders that if the U.S. is going to maintain its economic edge, we need to have more kids pursuing careers in science, technology engineering and math — the STEM fields,” said Frank Petruzielo, who has led the district as superintendent for 17 years. “If you wait until high school, it’s too late. You have to start as early as the primary grades, then build on that through middle school. Having these academies is enabling us to do just that.”

The first hurdle to overcome was funding, Petruzielo acknowledged. “We realized to make a difference there would need to be start-up funds to purchase STEM and fine arts equipment, supplies and materials, as well as money to provide professional development and training,” he said.

Students at the Canton Elementary School STEM Academy have access to an aquaponics lab where they study the relationship between fish and plants. Canton is one of four STEM academies created by the district to foster interest in the sciences.

By taking advantage of Georgia’s Race to the Top initiative, the district won a four-year grant of $2.8 million that earmarked $720,000 for the academy initiative. It helped establish four STEM and two fine arts centers in elementary schools that welcomed students from across the district by providing transportation from a student’s home school to the academy.

Designing the academies also met other objectives, explained Petruzielo. “We wanted to close the achievement gap between Title I and non-Title I schools by initially focusing on schools farthest away from performance,” he said. “Title I schools have the highest percentage of at-risk kids, and having these academies there is closing the achievement gap. We could have put them in schools where parents are college educated and kids have computers in their bedrooms, but we put them where kids needed the help most.”

The curriculum and best-practices teaching methods of the academies have been disseminated throughout the system, said Petruzielo. But the biggest successes, Petruzielo points out, have come in the academies’ elementary classrooms that are specifically outfitted to support the curriculum.

“We’re seeing a level of interest that was not there before,” he said. “The academies have opened an avenue of creativity. We’ve had students come up with tools for Lego robotics; another designed a house; and one student designed a cup holder for the family car and printed it on the 3-D printer. We’re also seeing improvements using test scores as the primary barometer. But we’re not looking for overnight success; we’re in this for the long haul.”

Parent Susan Dollyhigh made similar observations about her son Tanner, who attended the academy at Canton Elementary for three years before starting middle school last month.

“He improved his math skills and became much more interested in science,” she said. “Learning about engineering and technology was a plus. The teachers incorporated STEM topics into every subject, so it all built on one another. He found he could use what he learned in one class to work in another, and it helped him get a leg up on all his subjects.”

At the end of fifth grade, students worked on a project to build a giant microscope. “It incorporated math, technology, engineering and critical thinking,” said Dollyhigh. “Everything he learned there helped with that. He came away with skills he might not have learned in the other school.”

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