From Extra-Curricular to “Intra-Curricular”: Expanding Access to STEM at Whitehaven Elementary School

In May of 2018, the Tennessee Department of Education, in conjunction with the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network and the STEM Leadership Council, announced the first 15 Tennessee STEM Designated Schools. Over the next several months, TSIN will be highlighting each of these schools, the unique features that facilitate quality STEM teaching and learning, and advice from school leaders to adopt and replicate best practices. Follow @theTSIN on social media or sign up for our monthly newsletter to learn about each of these unique schools in the coming months.

Whitehaven Elementary’s STEMMusic Club showcase their projects.

Every year, Whitehaven Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee hosts a STEM Expo that celebrates the school’s commitment to STEM and allows students to showcase their STEM prowess to local community members, parents, and teachers. With over 20 community sponsors and 100 STEM exhibits, it’s clear there is plenty to celebrate at Whitehaven. Most impressively though, the Expo provides an opportunity for students to showcase their learning from Whitehaven’s more than 20 STEM clubs. With an assurance that all students can participate in STEM extra-curricular opportunities and an emphasis on student voice and choice, Whitehaven has positioned itself as a model for informal STEM learning. We spoke with Whitehaven Elementary Principal, Tommy Elliott, to learn why the school places such emphasis on extra-curricular opportunities in STEM and how to replicate the scale of their STEM offerings at other schools.

From First Robotics to Digital Yearbook, Gardening Club to STEMusic, all Whitehaven students have the opportunity to participate in STEM extra-curricular opportunities that ignite curiosity, generate connections, and make learning fun. Providing 20 unique STEM clubs for students requires an incredible amount of teacher buy-in and coordination, but Principal Elliott believes it is more than worth it. “The job possibilities for students in STEM is widely known, but we often do not think about the importance of exposing students to those jobs in an exciting and fun way,” he notes.

Embedding STEM Extra-curricular opportunities in the school day ensures all students have access.

Elliott further explains that informal learning opportunities and extracurricular opportunities are often viewed as “something extra,” but he insists they are essential components to a strong STEM culture. He points to two factors that have enabled the growth of informal learning at Whitehaven: intentional scheduling and a committed staff culture.

Though STEM learning in the classroom happens year-round, Whitehaven has implemented STEM Club Mondays that allow all students to select a club to participate in during the school day. “This schedule change addressed the challenge of student access to STEM”, Elliott says, noting that transportation issues can make it difficult for some students to attend a club after school.

Whitehaven Elementary teachers have embraced the opportunities to provide informal STEM learning.

Elliott is not shy to praise his teachers as the true champions of a strong STEM culture. He is incredibly intentional about hiring educators who buy into the school’s mission and embrace the focus on STEM extra-curricular opportunities. “Teachers in Memphis do not get paid more for leading a student club so it is imperative to find staff members that intrinsically believe in the value of STEM and are excited to take on this charge.” Though Elliott does require all Whitehaven educators to lead a STEM club, the abundance of club options ensures that all teachers lead a club they are intrinsically excited about. He further adds that “if there is not already a club for it, we encourage teachers to create it.”

Whitehaven’s commitment to informal learning and STEM for all has served as a catalyst for a STEM culture that permeates all facets of the school. In 2018, Whitehaven Elementary was one of 15 schools across the state to receive STEM Designation by the Tennessee Department of Education. Elliott invites educators and community members to visit the school and learn more about the practices that have positioned Whitehaven as a state leader in STEM education.

Whitehaven Elementary was one of 15 schools to receive Tennessee STEM Designation in 2018.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *