At a glance
- The hands-on and cooperative aspects of the Pitsco STEM lab lead to more student excitement and engagement in Dothan, AL, middle schools.
- Discipline referrals are dramatically lower in the STEM lab compared to the school as a whole. Principal Jeff Torrence attributes this to a high level of student engagement.
- After implementing the lab, science scores jumped nine points over a three-month period at one school.
DOTHAN, AL – Can the addition of a STEM lab alter a school’s
trajectory? Are the real-world experiences and the framework of
collaborative learning powerful enough to resonate throughout the
building? Can they change not only the attitudes of teachers and
students but also the perceptions of parents and community members?
Principal Jeff Torrence is quick to answer. “When you walk in that
STEM lab and you see those students in there working hands on, and you
walk into some of our regular, normal classrooms, I mean, the scale is very
unbalanced. It’s night and day. It’s night and day because that Pitsco STEM
lab gives our students the opportunity to work hands on and to move
around and to work with a teammate to accomplish a goal. And I think our
kids are excited about that. I think they’re excited about doing something
with their hands instead of sitting there with just pencil and paper.
“If I could have a STEM lab for every classroom in our school, this
probably would be the best school in the United States because I see how
our students are engaged in our Pitsco lab, and I just
wish I had that engagement in every classroom in
Exactly how engaged are Honeysuckle students
in their STEM learning? Consider that the Title I
school averages about 75 to 100 discipline referrals
per week. But during the half-semester that STEM Lab Facilitator Alvin
Wiggins rotated all 600 students in the school through the lab, he issued
only two referrals.
“They forget it’s school. They really do,” Wiggins said of students
working in the lab. “I had roughly 30 percent participation at the
beginning of the school year. Now, I am actually averaging somewhere
around 80 percent participation. It is a very high number.”
Explained Torrence: “I credit that to the students being so engaged
in that classroom that they don’t have time to act out. They don’t have
time for horseplay or anything like that because they’re so engaged.”
Pitsco STEM labs with Flex furniture were set up prior to the start of
the 2016-17 school year at Honeysuckle and Girard, the two lowestperforming
middle schools in the Dothan City Schools district. As part
of their science classes, all students at both schools rotate through
the labs completing Pitsco STEM Units such as Air Rockets and Green
Future, Expeditions such as Bio Research and Electric Tech, TETRIX®
Robotics, building kits, and 3-D printing with curriculum.
The district’s Director of Federal Programs and School Instructional
Specialist Lee Jacobs followed Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter’s
directive to add these STEM resources with big goals in mind.
“We needed our teachers to understand the mind-set that the book
is not the bible anymore. Strategies are your bible; standards are your
bible,” Jacobs said. “Project-based learning, hands-on material, that is
how we teach – experiences, how does it connect to the real world.”
A BOOST TO SCIENCE SCORES
The STEM labs are utilized by science teachers at both schools.
Accordingly, and much to the delight of administrators and teachers,
scores on the science portion of interim ACT Aspire testing jumped
9 percentage points over a three-month period (November 2016 to
February 2017) at Girard. The percentage of students in all three grades,
6-8, scoring proficient and above in science went from 42 to 51. For sixth
graders, the increase was 14 percentage points (jumping from 42 to 56).
“I believe that the hands-on activities along with the rigorous
assessments have played a role in our gains,” said Girard Principal Darius
McKay, who closely tracks data and has even set up a data room where
every student’s progress in each subject can be found somewhere on
the colorful walls denoting three categories of progress: ready (at grade
level), close to being ready, or in need of support. “If they’re doing STEM
through Pitsco all year, at the end of the year when they take the ACT
high-stakes exam, they’ll be highly prepared. Everything is aligned.”
Honeysuckle eighth-grade physical science teacher James Hill,
a 24-year teaching veteran, was all smiles when explaining how he
expands on students’ STEM lab experiences in his regular classroom
or vice versa. The way students have naturally taken to team-based
problem solving on robotics projects also has been fun to watch.
“Some of the teams would collaborate and work together, and
some would use division of labor. You do this, you do this,” Hill said.
“I left it up to them to decide. And I thought it was interesting how
different groups went about solving the problems in two different
ways. . . . I think this is the way to go with students.”
REASON FOR HOPE
Ranked in the recent past among the lowest-performing
middle schools in the state of Alabama, Girard and Honeysuckle are
experiencing a rebound, and STEM has been a springboard. Students
in low socioeconomic schools sometimes don’t receive the latest
curricular solutions enjoyed by their counterparts in more affluent
areas, which is why Dothan officials felt the need to add STEM in hopes
of breaking the cycle of low performance.
“We are really working hard to change the reputation
that we have in our community,” Torrence said. “We can’t
do it overnight, but the STEM program has really helped
because when I get parents that want to visit and take a
look, that’s the first place that I take them.”
Some parents have noticed their children’s
renewed interest in education and even taken the time
to thank Wiggins in person. “I had a parent come to me
the other day, and he was like, ‘Hey, are you Mr. Wiggins?
I want to thank you.’ He said, ‘My child has never been a straight-A student.
He has never been fired up for school. . . . I wanted to let you know that
this year he’s a straight-A student. He loves coming to school, and he talks
about you all the time, and you really made an impression.’”
Girard STEM lead teacher Anna Tew is excited about the possible long-term
effects of offering STEM at the middle level and eventually adding it at
the elementary and high school levels, a plan that is in the works. Exposure
to real-world careers and the opportunity to use professional equipment
and software can be life altering for students with limited life experiences.
“We have kids here who are bright or even brighter than some of
the kids over at the magnet schools, and they deserve just as much if
not more opportunities than those students,” Tew said. “Statistics have
shown that our kids, a lot of them don’t get to go to college. A lot of
them drop out at the high school level because they don’t see a future
for themselves, and if we can reach them with this even earlier on at
lower grades, think of the endless opportunities out there for them.
They’ll be exposed to those things and they’ll have hope.”