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Duplin County, NC, a national leader in STEM/maker movement

Superintendent Obasohan visits White House to share views, learn from peers

Published July 28, 2015
DUPLIN COUNTY, NC – Kids hear it all the time. “Dream big.” “Pursue your dreams.” But how and where are they supposed to do it? That’s the missing link – guidance and opportunity.

Superintendent Austin Obasohan is determined to create that link in Duplin County (NC) Schools by going beyond dreams and showing students what their future reality can be if they join the STEM and maker movement. He and two staff members went all the way to the White House to share their innovative ideas with a select group of STEM advocates as part of National Week of Making in June 2015.

“It is the students’ assignment to dream big dreams, and it’s our assignment as educators to make sure they have realized their dreams regardless of what those dreams are, and STEM is one way that allows that to happen,” Obasohan says.

STEM efforts in Duplin County started in earnest two years ago with the addition of Pitsco Education labs in middle schools. Expansion into elementary schools will begin this fall. District STEM Coordinator Nicole Murray says the Pitsco labs and recent STEM Professional Development for elementary teachers go a long way in making the district a leader on the STEM and maker front.

“Everything fell into place with the STEM PD. I’ve been astounded by the creativity and the innovative ideas that our teachers have come up with in doing the design challenges that they’ve been given by the Pitsco facilitators,” Murray said. “The fact that the creativity lies within the teachers tells me that they have the capacity to bring the students to the same level by giving them the opportunities.”

As for the hands-on, collaborative curriculum students explore in the Pitsco labs, “What the students are doing as they go through those Modules, they are creating some things,” she said. “In Video Production, they’re making and creating with technology. The CNC Manufacturing Module where they’re using the CNC equipment to model something using the computer, that’s a creation. The Modules where they create cars and do robotics, it’s the same thing.”

Obasohan views the school district as ripe for the STEM shift as a natural and vital part of the school system’s ongoing dedication to district-wide early college. The rural community is rich in agriculture, and business and industry partners are eager to collaborate and latch onto ideas that will lead to new jobs. “We want to align our students’ interest with job availability,” he says. “Because we are an agricultural community, hands-on teaching and learning gives students the opportunity to create their own futures, to use their talents to create their own projects.”

The STEM labs deliver a sampling of various careers and enable students to make sense of the work they do in core classes such as math, science, and English language arts.

“We give them opportunities to use their hands and create and think a little bit until they reach proficiency because everything is not about test scores anymore, how proficient a child is in the classroom. We have children who are Level 4, Level 5 dropping out of school. So we really need to build that connection. We need to show that relevance.”

A 30-year veteran of the public education system, Obasohan says he’s never been in a classroom where students feel as much a part of the work as they do in a Pitsco lab. “One student said, ‘Thank you so much. This lab saved my life.’ She said she would have dropped out. . . . When she had the chance to explore different Modules, she had renewed hope in her future. That’s what STEM does.”

Only through key partnerships can STEM be fully implemented in a school district. Duplin County’s partners include James Sprunt Community College, North Carolina New Schools, STEM East, Golden LEAF Foundation, Governor McCrory’s Office, and numerous local business and industry leaders. Obasohan says these partnerships are critical to aligning educational practices with global workforce needs. 

As for the invitation to the White House, Obasohan and Murray said it came as a sudden surprise shortly after the school year ended, but they were honored and eager to share the story of how their STEM movement has been a community effort rooted in the goal of creating a climate for student and business success.

“Our community has come together, joined hands,” Obasohan said. “James Sprunt Community College and businesses have joined hands together with our staff to say, ‘Listen, we know what we need. We know we want you to help us with employability skills.’ . . . So now teachers are working better as a team. . . . It’s just an example of where the future is going, and we want to be ready for the future. We’re not afraid of taking that risk.”

“Our Pitsco STEM lab provides real-world, hands-on experience that enables students the opportunities to think critically, problem solve, collaborate, and be responsible for their success, while learning new skills.”

– Jennifer Rivenbark, CTE teacher, Wallace Elementary School, Wallace, North Carolina

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