A Season of Thanks: An Interview with Sara Shaffer, Digital Arts Teacher at D-B Excel

Sara Shaffer, Digitals Art Teacher and PBL Coordinator at D-B Excel

In this season of Thanksgiving, we are incredibly grateful for the teachers that engage students in STEM every day. There are so many teachers across the Volunteer State who go above and beyond to create innovative lessons that challenge students to become the critical thinkers and problem solvers of tomorrow. One such teacher is Sara Shaffer, the Digital Arts teacher and Project Based Learning Coordinator at D-B Excel in Kingsport, Tennessee. Sara is in her third year of teaching at D-B Excel and teaches her classes out of the school’s Makerspace. We had the opportunity to interview Sara to learn more about her unique approach to STEM teaching and the role of digital arts in preparing tomorrow’s leaders.

D-B Excel students code the 3D printer in the Makerspace

If we were to walk into your school’s Makerspace during class time, what would we expect to see, hear and feel?
Sara Shaffer: When you walk into our Makerspace, you would see students filming on our greenscreen and engaging with Adobe Creative Suite, a graphic design and editing software that is used by many industry professionals. You would also see students designing and printing 3D pieces using Autodesk Fusion 360 and our school’s 3D printers. To encourage students to document and present their learning, we have a poster printer, high tech cameras, and even a drone camera. You would hear students collaborating to solve the challenges presented by the Project Based Learning (PBL) and also supporting one another with the different tools. You would feel the excitement students have for the Makerspace. They know when they walk into the Makerspace, they will be encouraged to design, create and innovate, and students feel a lot of ownership over their own learning.

Students from D-B Excel engage with chemists from Eastman

What is the most meaningful PBL you have seen students engage with?
SS: We encourage students to create a documentary around a topic that is particularly important to them. I collaborate with the English teacher so that the students work is captivating and well written. One student wrote an incredibly moving documentary about suicide awareness as that was an issue that had impacted her life. Not only was the story powerful, but her use of digital media helped capture the project and its meaningfulness.

How do you engage the local community in the development of PBLs?
SS: We’re very blessed to be in downtown Kingsport so we have many community partners in our backyard. We start by thinking about the key understandings that we want students to develop during the project and then consider which of our partners would be the best asset. In the past, we have worked with the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, Eastman Chemical Company, and Domtar Paper Company. We also have an ‘Earn and Learn’ program so that students can earn credit for working directly with a local business.

You are passionate about helping students create multimedia presentations using evidence collected from PBLS to then be able to present  to audiences. Why is it so  important to help students develop presentation skills?
SS: When our students go out into the real world, we want them to be more than their resume. Your work can look great on paper but the way to stand out in a job is to be able to coherently present it to employers and clients. Our students will have many tools in their belt to create unique and captivating presentations.

Students practice presentations in front of D-B Excel’s green screen

From the TSIN Team, thank you to Sara Shaffer and D-B Excel for sharing unique practices for engaging students in STEM and Digital Arts. Thank you to all the teachers across our state working tirelessly for the betterment of our students. Your commitment is appreciated. We hope you all enjoy some well-deserved time with loved ones this Thanksgiving, and maybe an extra slice of pumpkin pie!

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