STEM School Chattanooga is model for rest of the state, education commissioner says

This article was featured in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on  February 5, 2015.  Author: Will Healey

Newly sworn-in Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was the featured speaker on a panel discussing 21st century education initiatives at STEM School Chattanooga on Wednesday.

A crowd of roughly 50 local educators, administrators and government officials sat among 3-D printers and computers in the school’s “Fab Lab” listening to McQueen and her fellow panelists. Discussion centered around what Chattanooga needs to do to become an educational leader and innovator.

McQueen praised STEM School’s innovative curriculum as a step in the right direction.

“What you’re doing here is what we should be doing across the entire state,” McQueen said. “To help students make connections between what they’re learning, the workforce’s needs and 21st century technology.”

STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math, has become a familiar term in education circles in the United States since initiatives were launched to increase American competitiveness for high-tech jobs. STEM School Chattanooga, established two and a half years ago on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College, is a result of this push.

The school’s unique curriculum is centered around an idea known as “blended learning,” in which the student takes a more active role in his or her education. Michael Stone, who came to the school after several years teaching calculus in a traditional setting, says the approach is dramatically different.

“Ten years ago it used to be all about me at the [chalk] board,” Stone said. “Now it’s all about the student.”

One innovation the STEM curriculum offers is “PBL,” project- or problem-based learning. With PBL, student groups are paired with area businesses to either create a product or help solve a problem. One group, commissioned to help EPB with designs for the business’s holiday window displays, built a 30-foot acrylic ice castle inspired by Disney’s “Frozen.” Another group, commissioned by Chattanooga State, came up with three viable ways of dealing with the invasive kudzu plant problem in the city.

STEM School Principal Tony Donen said the school’s unique projects also connect to traditional subjects.

“While our ninth-graders are building a robot in one class, they’re writing a manual for the project in their English class,” said Donen.

McQueen, who officially began her tenure as commissioner Jan. 17, said this type of engaged learning is what Tennessee students desperately need. She said that though Tennessee is one of the fastest-improving states in terms of high school graduation rate, the state has a lot of work to do on improving postsecondary education rates. McQueen said students in Tennessee who graduate high school but don’t get a postsecondary education make around $9,000 a year.

“The urgency’s there because these are real kids, these are their futures,” McQueen said. “We want them to be citizens of Tennessee that we can be proud of.”

While McQueen said she and her staff have several ideas on how to tackle the problem, there isn’t a “magic bullet.”

“It’ll take all of us working together,” she said, “otherwise we’ll be here four years from now talking about the same problems.”

This article was featured in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on  February 5, 2015. Author: Will Healey

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