Huntsville, Alabama, is not only referred to as “The Rocket City,” but also as “The Silicon Valley of the South” because of the large number of Fortune 500 companies and STEM jobs available. My school district, Decatur City Schools, is nestled just minutes from Huntsville. Decatur also contains many companies including: 3M, Nucor, and United Launch Alliance.
With so much opportunity right in our backyard, our district has focused on providing our students with a large number of skills to be competitive in the local job market. Because roughly 56% of our students live in poverty, we are also trying to change our students’ family paths. We believe that the more skills we provide our students, the more opportunities they have to obtain a job that pulls them out of poverty.
As an instructional technology coach in Decatur for the past four years, I’ve been closely involved in helping bring more STEM innovation to the classroom — for not only students, but teachers as well. Through these initiatives, our students are not only learning technology skills, but they’re also learning the vital skills of creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.
I’m often asked how we’ve been able to make STEM explode in our schools, so I want to share a few things that have helped us:
Expose students to STEM early and often.
STEM is not a one-time thing, or something that just happens once a week. STEM should be integrated into a variety of subject materials, consistently and early in their learning journeys. Our students are building and creating at a young age. Did you know PreK students can learn how to code a robot, retell a story, and learn their directions at the same time? They can, and they love it! It’s an engaging way to teach a lesson! Don’t know how to code, or are you intimidated by coding? That’s okay! There are many programs — such as Code.Org, Scratch, Scratch Jr., EVERFI — that allow students to research, learn, and create without needing assistance from a teacher.
Provide a variety of opportunities to engage in STEM.
Computer science is not the only thing that makes up STEM. One program we have brought to our 4th-12th graders in Decatur is Greenpower USA. Our students build and then race electric cars through this fabulous design-thinking opportunity. Last year, our elementary schools raced against each other. The excitement on race day was contagious — a day our students will never forget. Yet, no computer science was involved. No matter what career path our students choose, they still need to be able to create, think critically, and collaborate.
We also have a Career Academy that provides our high-school students with opportunities to explore a variety of STEM skills while gaining real-world experiences. Some of our academies include: Advanced Manufacturing, Health Sciences, Cyber Security, and more. Our DCS Career Academy has provided our students with certifications, internships, and skills needed to move directly into the career field after high school.
Apply for STEM-focused grants and other partnerships.
Partnerships and grants can work for your school in a few different ways:
- Reach out to businesses in your area. Not only can they support your school system financially, but they can also provide support and internships to your students.
- Apply for every grant you see. Last year, we received a three-year grant from BootUp PD, sponsored by Amazon, to provide computer science training to some of our elementary teachers. This partnership has made an impact on instruction in our participating schools, and we can’t wait to expand to all of our schools soon.
- Discuss with local leaders that STEM is a priority. Many companies and organizations want to help schools, but don’t know exactly how to help. Sharing the things your schools are doing will increase their willingness to volunteer and donate.
Governor Ivy, the governor of Alabama, and a committee of educators passed a set of standards ensuring that all elementary students will be receiving digital literacy and computer science instruction beginning next school year. We are well on our way to provide that to our students, and I can’t wait to see what the next few years hold for them.
We've come a long way in the time I've been an instructional coach, and I'm optimistic about what the future holds. If we continue to nurture productive use of technology today, we can look forward to a tomorrow where all students are better prepared with career-building skills in the ever-changing job market.
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