STEM School accepts students from all academic achievement levels
Chattanooga is growing fast, adding well-paid new jobs in high-tech industries every day—but studies indicate our schools are not turning out graduates qualified to fill them. What to do? The Hamilton County Department of Education hopes its new STEM school, graduating its first class this spring, will make a difference.
A new report issued by the school system, “Chattanooga 2.0: Building the Smartest Community in the South,” frankly examines the educational challenges our community faces, and these are legion.
In the past five years, says the report, Chattanooga has added more than 3,000 jobs, and that number is expected to quadruple in the next five years. The expansion of logistics, healthcare, insurance, advanced manufacturing and technology businesses in the region means that if we sustain the new growth, we can anticipate a projected creation of 28,000 jobs over the next decade
The hitch is that over 80 percent of the jobs that pay more than $35,000 a year will require a post-secondary degree—and today only 35 percent of Hamilton County students are likely to obtain this educational benchmark. With so few of our students completing post-secondary education, we risk having a majority of residents unable to benefit from the jobs coming into our community, potentially making our economic boost a temporary instead of sustainable boon and losing the competitive advantage we have worked so hard to achieve.
Other sobering statistics released in the report include:
Four out of 10 students in Hamilton County live in poverty, which presents major barriers for academic success.
Fewer than half the children entering kindergarten are considered “ready to learn.”
Nearly 60 percent of all third-graders cannot read on their grade level. Research has long shown that students who are not reading on grade level by third grade will struggle for the rest of their academic careers.
Hamilton County schools have fallen behind the state and other metro areas in every single high school test score, as well as average ACT scores.
Only 24 percent of Chattanooga State students and 51 percent of UTC students graduate with a degree within six years of first enrollment.
There are 15,000 Hamilton County jobs that cannot presently be filled by local residents due to lack of training, skills and education.
Into this grim scenario comes the bright new concept of the STEM school. The acronmym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics—a foreshortening of the fuller acronym STEAM2, Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, Mathematics and Medicine.
Chattanooga’s STEM school was founded in 2012, its stated mission to “develop and share a new paradigm for world-class education using technology as a gateway to cultivate students’ inquisitive nature, exercise innovation, think critically and collaborate to become leaders who are self-sufficient learners with the same passion as Chattanooga’s Renaissance.”
The school is a place where kids learn how to break down the silos of where they live, but Dr. Tony Donen, the school’s principal, says exclusivity is not the point. “The goal is not to put all of the rocket scientists together but to harness the potential of any student with an interest in STEM,” he said.
With an engineering degree from Virginia Tech, Dr. Donen is a nationally recognized education administrator and the author of two books on innovative academic measurement. Under his leadership, Chattanooga’s STEM school is serving as a demonstration site for innovative practices in STEM education and is incubating a curriculum and partnership program that can be implemented in schools throughout the region.
Located in the new high-tech facility adjacent to the Wacker Institute on the campus of Chattanooga State, this innovative school accepts 75 students each year in a two-tiered lottery process. Dr. Donen says the student body “is a representation of Chattanooga where kids who shop at different BiLo’s are learning to work and collaborate together.”
Each year’s freshman class is comprised of students who come, in equal proportion, from each high school zone in Hamilton County. With a uniquely diverse student body, this school incorporates local, national and international problem-based learning projects in a curriculum that emphasizes core content learning and process skills development in innovation, critical thinking and collaboration.
And as for post-secondary education, with a total student body of 263 this year, 100 percent of STEM School Chattanooga students are already enrolled in college courses. Dr. Donen reports he has yet to have a student in this year’s first senior class tell him they had not been accepted into a college or secondary school, and of the students taking classes at UTC and Chattanooga State, he says 90 percent were earning passing grades.
The partnership with Chattanooga State empowers these students to understand what it takes to be successful in college. “STEM gives me the opportunity to experience college classes and the college workload with high school teacher support,” said STEM senior Emily Varner.
The philosophy of project-based learning is rooted in the STEM School Chattanooga curriculum, and this dynamic approach to teaching allows students to explore real-world problems and challenges, developing cross-curriculum skills while working in small collaborative groups. Strong related arts programs connect the curriculum. For example, a student may learn how to build a robot in one class and learn how to write a handbook for the robot in another class or illustrate the handbook in another class.
Students are encouraged to go as deep into a subject as they want to, simultaneously challenging the gifted student while connecting the student who felt adrift in another school’s teacher-centered program.
Students at all levels of academic achievement submit applications to the STEM school lottery and Dr. Donen points to the success of that inclusion, citing struggling readers who learned compliance previously and who flourished with headphones and audio books in this technology and student-centric atmosphere.
“STEM is a very self-guided learning experience,” says Emily Varner. “You learn to take charge of your own education and how to self-inspire and motivate—you’re inspired to go out and find your own learning and information.”
STEM students complete PBLs, or “Project-Based Learning” projects each year, allowing them to learn from activities centered on real-world problems that don’t have a prescribed solution, giving students the opportunity to discover their own answers by applying the problem-solving process. The school’s resources allow students to go full circle from design to building and testing.
STEM School Chattanooga features the only official “FabLab” in Tennessee, an innovative and unique fabrication laboratory capable of “making almost anything.” Eleventh-grade STEM students are a part of a first-in-the-nation collaboration across the country using the Gigabit network.
STEM students, as diverse as students come in Chattanooga, share a common bond, and the love of learning shines in each of their faces. From a robotics competition to the EPB’s holiday displays, these students are learning and growing, engaging with the community and paving the way for success for themselves, their families and us all.
Prospective STEM students may learn how to apply at hcde.org—the deadline is Jan. 31—or for more information, they may call (423) 531-6270, or visit stemschoolchattanooga.net.
How Can I Help? Volunteers Needed
The new report “Chattanooga 2.0: Building the Smartest Community in the South,” offers some daunting statistics (see accompanying article) but also some hope. If our community could achieve a 75 percent post-secondary graduation rate, it says, we could see the following tangible impacts:
- 100,000 more local residents with access to jobs that pay over $350,000 annually
- An average annual raise of $4,500 for every adult worker in Hamilton County
- $1.1 billion more in total wages in the county every year
- Approximately 8,000 adults moved out of poverty
Can you image that? Every adult worker in Hamilton County could earn $4,500 more per year simply by increasing post-secondary graduation rates.
So how can we get—as a community—from point A to point B? STEM schools are great, but attendance is limited. That’s where volunteerism comes in.
Chattanooga 2.0 identifies that school readiness, third-grade foundations, career exploration portfolios and post-secondary readiness are the recipe for the workforce development that can propel our community into the future we all hope for.
If you are a living, breathing human in this county, you have skin in the game. Whether you’re a business owner, parent, butcher, baker or candlestick maker, there is something that you can do and there are organizations working to support literacy and education who can turn your volunteer time into life-changing moments.
Everyone can donate to an organization that supports school readiness or volunteer their time as a reader. Many of us can partner as a business or professional to mentor teens—and the investment in our children, families and community can reap rewards for our region that will benefit everyone.
Photo courtesy STEM School of Chattanooga