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‘They forget it’s school!’

STEM labs help transform low-performing middle schools in Dothan, AL

Published April 6, 2017

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 our school.”

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.”


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.”


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.”

“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.”

– Jeff Torrence, principal, Honeysuckle Middle School, Dothan, Alabama

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