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Not all business

Longtime NC business teacher overcomes obstacles, transitions to Expeditions

Published April 15, 2019
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BURGAW, NC – Not one but two major hurdles turned the 2018-19 school year into the greatest challenge of Sylvia Wilkins’s 30-year teaching career.

First, her familiar lineup of classes – keyboarding, word processing, office productivity – was being replaced by something called STEM Expeditions® from Pitsco Education. As the only CTE teacher at West Pender Middle School in Burgaw, North Carolina, Wilkins was assigned to facilitate the new hands-on career exploration program.

The second obstacle was the same monster faced by thousands of other teachers and all residents across the region, Hurricane Florence. The catastrophic storm struck in early September and caused students to miss 30 days of school. Double whammy.

During the summer leading up to the school year, though, a nervous Wilkins was certain that no disaster could top having to switch to the new Expeditions program for sixth through eighth graders late in her teaching career.

“Honestly, I felt like a lost sheep, that after all these years of knowing my content and teaching it very well, this new task had been thrown at me without any training at all,” said Wilkins, who learned shortly before the start of the school year that she would indeed receive formal professional development from a certified Pitsco Education program instructor.

Going into the intensive one-day PD session, she was worried about what to do if she didn’t like the new program, but then her day got much better. “After going through the training, I felt a big relief,” she said. “It was lots of information to take in during one day, but what made it better was that I could go back through the training sessions [online] as much as I needed to to reiterate any of the information.”

Now, with the major curriculum transition and the aftereffects of the hurricane barely visible in Wilkins’s rearview mirror, she is much more comfortable with the Expeditions, a blend of student-directed activities and teacher-led instruction rooted in hands-on career exploration.

Best of all, Wilkins is seeing students respond positively to the team-based, project-based learning experiences. “Students really enjoy having this hands-on experience creating and building projects they never thought they could create. I hear conversations among them such as, ‘I think I can be this or that after taking this class.’ That within itself proves there’s success for the students as they continue on career pathways.”

A couple of students confirmed Wilkins’s evaluation that the open-ended content, which begins with an essential question and employs the engineering design process, is opening students’ eyes to a future full of career possibilities.

Now, I want to be an astronaut,” says TaQuan, “and I believe that as I continue to be guided by the steps of engineers, my career will be successful because of having the opportunity to explore the Expeditions in STEM class.”

Added Langston, “Building a vehicle from scratch was so much fun, but having to go back to improve it because of the logistics of the challenge of differences in speed enables me to test predicted and real transportation time. I really like this class, and I see how important it is to excel in math and science class in order to be successful in any career.”

“The units have a really heavy engineering focus. My kindergartners build animal homes. My second graders build park rides. Right now, my second graders are building containers to protect four cookies and give them as a gift. . . . I really love that at the K-2 level, the kids get to think and create and engineer stuff.”

– Debra Rouse, K-6 STEM specialist, North Cedar Community School District, Lowden, Iowa

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