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Turning a problem into a solution

Missions lab also leads to big jump in science test scores at Wallace (NC) Elementary School

Published August 16, 2016

WALLACE, NC – It seems counterintuitive – an unexpected problem in the classroom that leads to better science engagement and understanding for students and teachers. How is this paradox possible? Simple. Because problem solving is an inherent component of the Pitsco Education STREAM Missions program found in elementary schools across the country.

At Wallace Elementary School in Duplin County, NC, District STEM Coordinator Nicole Murray recounted a perfect example of an experience students had that took their limited knowledge of – and interest in – science to a new high.

Working in the Plants Mission, a Crew of four students was struggling to get its seeds to germinate in small paper cups. “I was able to bring them in for some problem solving,” Murray said. “The paper cups looked dirty. Does this mean the water’s getting out of the cup? Is that why the soil is too dry? I kept telling them how scientists and engineers don’t give up and say, ‘Oh well, let’s just skip that part.’ They continue.”

As did the students, who eventually decided to switch to using plastic cups that resulted in more success getting plant seeds to germinate.

“It’s because they’re seeing things, because they’re getting their hands on things, that these questions are coming up,” Murray said of the Pitsco lab’s effect. “I can go in as an adult or the teacher can go in as an adult and say, ‘OK, that didn’t work. Let’s try this.’”

Wallace Elementary School Principal Jay Parker, a former science teacher, immediately understood the potential impact of the Missions lab when it was offered. “As soon as an email went out about a possible grant, I said, ‘Go ahead and put down Wallace Elementary,’” Parker recalled. “I wanted it because I know how impactful STEM can be for the entire school, the entire school culture. I’m all about the whole child. It’s not just about reading or writing or math. It’s about every child has some talent somewhere; you just have to find it. And you can go in there on any given day and there’ll be a child that has a learning disability or a child doesn’t speak English – we have just the whole range here – and they’ll be successful in that STEM lab.”


The impact on student engagement and teacher buy-in has been significant for all who utilize the shared lab where third through fifth graders rotate through during the school year. But the positive impact on state science test scores during the lab’s first year was most eye-opening.

Compared to the year before, fifth graders in Spring 2016 had a14 percent improvement on the state science assessment, validation that the Missions program can lead to science improvement at the seven other district elementary schools scheduled to open labs during the next two years.


As an all-inclusive school, Wallace combines students of all ability levels into each classroom. This arrangement can be challenging when a teacher delivers traditional curriculum to the entire class, but with the four-person Crew design of Missions in which students take on specific roles – Commander, Information Specialist, Materials Specialist, and Communications Specialist – and proceed at their own pace, all students get the chance to shine at various points.

“It’s really neat because some of them are kind of low in reading but they’re good in science, so this is where they get confident and they’re actually a little bit more outspoken than others,” said fourth-grade teacher Savannah Benton.

A case in point was a girl who would virtually shut down during math and reading lessons in the regular classroom. “When she gets in here and she’s the Commander, that’s her position. She is the Commander and nobody can tell her different. It’s awesome to see that,” Benton said. “I show her she’s doing well on the assessments and she gets so excited. This is her thing.”

All students eagerly anticipate their time in the Missions lab, Benton added. “My kids want to go to STEM. They ask me, ‘Can we stay longer? Can we do it during math, or can we do something for math that’s STEM?’”


The success of a Missions program does not happen by chance. Having a comprehensive plan in place is step number one. For Duplin County, that plan stems from the STEM East initiative to set up programs in districts through the eastern region of North Carolina. STEM East has forged business-education relationships and partnerships with the overarching aim of developing a well-trained future workforce for the region.

Getting youngsters off to a good start in STEM at the elementary level involves consistent implementation of programs with fidelity, which is Murray’s responsibility. Pitsco conducted Missions professional development for about 20 teachers and administrators before the program was used at Wallace, and Murray took it from there. She works closely with each classroom teacher who brings students to the lab, and she regularly assists in the lab to ensure all facets are functioning correctly, occasionally making modifications to meet the needs of students. She’ll do the same at other schools where Pitsco labs are opened.

“It’s a wonderful program and we love it, but nothing is one size fits all. And so we’ve tweaked it. We’ve found that there are some things not every child at a grade level is developmentally ready for. We’re inclusive of all of our children,” Murray said.

As a veteran educator, Murray knows how critical teacher buy-in is, so she takes steps to ensure they are comfortable with the Missions program, even conducting brief surveys. One of her questions is, “Has the lab increased your confidence in teaching science?” “With the first rotation of teachers, all of them indicated it had,” Murray said. “We’ve not only had growth in students but we’ve had growth in teachers because confidence is such a big part of it.”

A Missions mentor is ready to help you!

Nicole Murray, District STEM Coordinator for Duplin County, NC, schools, enjoyed the benefits of learning about Pitsco Missions from a mentor, Cindy Williams of nearby Craven County. Now, Murray is happy to pay it forward and share her knowledge with other Missions teachers and coordinators. From suggestions for getting the most out of orientation to tweaks for better incorporating vocabulary terms in shortened class periods, Murray has some tried-and-true advice and suggestions to share. She can be reached at

“The summer [professional development] session was critical because it took all of our teachers through every activity that they would face, every Expedition the kids would be doing. It was vitally important.”

– Darius McKay, principal, Girard Middle School, Dothan, Alabama

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