STEM & Collab
Q&A with Dr. Catherine Jones on STEM for Remote Learners
Prescott South Elementary’s principal shares the ‘secret sauce’ to achieving successful STEM engagement in any kind of classroom
Advancements in technology have opened the door for more and new careers in fields like medicine, information technology, engineering and hard and soft sciences. In response, STEM education in the K-12 space has evolved by leaps and bounds over the last several years. However, the challenges brought on by the pandemic and subsequent need to equip millions of students for remote learning has only reinformed how crucial it is for students to build their STEM skills, now and in the future.
Dr. Catherine Jones, principal at Prescott South Elementary in Cookeville, Tennessee, recently participated in a Trox webinar on how to help educators engage remote students in STEM. Prescott South Elementary is a Tennessee STEM designated school that has been working with STEM practices since 2012. In this Q&A, we dive into how Dr. Jones and her team of teachers are putting STEM education into practice to prepare the next generation of thinkers, problem-solvers and innovators.
Trox: What is the value of STEM education and why do you support it?
Dr. Jones: STEM education is the secret sauce in PreK-12 education. It serves countless purposes when integrated into traditional curriculum, encore classes, family engagement activities and after-school opportunities. The engineering design process (EDP) is a growth mindset for creating undiscovered solutions. EDP helps young students view the world and existing technology critically as tools in need of improvement. As naturally as possible, teachers inform students about a wide variety of careers and the skills that need to be strong for those careers. Early exposure to that information helps shape students’ decisions as they choose paths in high school and as they pursue post-secondary degrees or certifications.
Trox: What is your school’s approach to creating winning STEM programs?
Dr. Jones: STEM education at Prescott South Elementary is taught with an integrative approach to create student experiences. Students participate in two STEM challenges every nine weeks that are based on grade-level standards and relate to the skills being taught by the homeroom teacher using the EDP. Our teachers integrate career awareness throughout the year. The school celebrates Career Day on or before Halloween on Oct. 31 when students dress up in attire suited to a potential career and participate in a dedicated encore class to learn about a variety of careers.
Each grade level has a STEM career focus that is explored through the STEM Encore class. Kindergarteners focus on architecture, first graders take an encore class on agriculture, second graders learn about medicine and health fields, third graders focus on technology and fourth graders learn about engineering. Each year there is a STEM-focused schoolwide theme. Last year the theme was aeronautics. This year the theme is manufacturing. Family engagement events are also centered around the schoolwide theme.
Trox: How do kids who participate in STEM education benefit – both in the short term and long term?
Dr. Jones: Short-term STEM education provides a systematic approach for inventing and improving the environment in which a child lives. Long-term goals include developing skills early, providing a purpose for becoming educated, and making informed decisions regarding career paths.
Trox: What are some of the most innovative STEM projects your students have worked on since the onset of COVID-19?
Dr. Jones: Prior to COVID-19, students designed much-needed playground equipment, discovered solutions to control noise levels in the cafeteria, as well as worked on recycling and compost efforts. Innovations as a result of COVID-19 will be reflected upon next year. We’re only at the start of this academic year; there are many weeks of learning ahead!
Trox: What challenges does COVID-19 present to STEM learning? How are your approach and/or lesson plans changed in response?
Dr. Jones: This truly is a challenge for STEM, isn’t it? We are continuing our STEM integration by adapting practices for safety guidelines. Encore classes have become mobile and come to the classroom. The STEM activities within those classes have been adapted to also meet safety guidelines. More consumables are used because we are working independently instead of working as groups, but overall, it has proven to be highly successful. We are planning a virtual Career Day instead of our station rotation with in-person professionals. Our schoolwide family engagement night will become a two week at-home event. Where there is a will, there is a way!
Trox: How has technology helped ensure continued STEM education at your school?
Dr. Jones: Throughout the district, technology was offered to families as a tool to connect remote students. Google Classroom is utilized for the traditional classroom and in encore classes. The uses of technology are still being discovered as tools for learning, and there is a fast-paced learning curve through virtual conferences and online learning opportunities.
Trox: What, in your opinion, are some of the best STEM education technologies on the market today?
Dr. Jones: Chromebooks and hotspots are the foundation for off-campus connection currently. Free WiFi would be a forerunner, but that is not a reality yet. Our STEM program is primarily focused on coding, robotics, circuitry and computer design technologies. 3D printing for prototyping for upper elementary, middle and high school students is great. Sphero, Sphero Mini, Dash & Dot, Bee-Bot and other programmable devices help build foundational skills for computer science. Computer Science careers are currently one of the fastest growing STEM careers. Silhouette and Cricut machines are used for design and application. These machines also promote realistic and career-based skills. iPads and digital cameras still play a significant role in STEM education by allowing students to experience the media production career field. WeDo and Mindstorm LEGO robotic kits offer a hands-on pathway to coding.
Trox: There is a lot of research pointing to disparities when it comes to access to STEM education, which is only exacerbated by the global pandemic. What actions should schools take to make STEM education more inclusive – both now, and as kids begin to return to the classroom?
Dr. Jones: STEM integration is not something to be purchased. The foundation of STEM is the EDP coupled with the development of problem-solving skills and career awareness and preparation. There are many research papers and reports regarding the skills in demand for employment. All of these skills are utilized when implementing STEM. These skills are evolving each year, and STEM education must continue to evolve. All jobs will not be STEM jobs, but all careers will require STEM skills.
Trox: What should K-12 schools consider to increase the quality of STEM programming from both an online and on-campus learning experience?
Dr. Jones: Investing in teachers and preparing teachers to understand the skills in demand for employment. Access and equity are also critical considerations. The COVID-19 pandemic is a STEM challenge. Scientists need to work toward a variety of solutions to help mankind during this unpredictable and ever-changing situation. Government and businesses need to support equity with access to education. Community organizations need to work together to help organizations and families thrive.
Trox: How do you think STEM will evolve over the next 10 years?
Dr. Jones: For years it was believed teachers were preparing students for careers that did not exist at that time. The pandemic has accelerated a change in that mindset. Technology serves as the author of the narrative. As technology advances, STEM foundations will also need to progress. The students educated in the past are now serving in various roles of government, scientist, engineer, educator, manager and business leader. Their children will require different skills, just as current professionals needed to develop skills that were different that those their parents used.
The goal for Prescott South Elementary is to prepare the next generation of great thinkers, problems solvers, inventors and innovators.
Interested in hearing more from Dr. Jones, as well as learning more about innovative STEM technologies on the market today? Listen to Trox’s Remotely Engaging Students in STEM webinar and view our STEM & Collaborative Learning solutions page.
About the Author
Jenni Ottum is the Public Relations and Communications Manager at Trox. She began her career in public relations and communications by working for a global retail and supply chain software provider. Since then, she has held several B2B marketing communications roles in the software space. Most recently, Jenni worked on the Americas Communications team at Tech Data, overseeing the region’s external communications efforts. Before that, she served as the Senior Director of Public Relations for SHE Media, a leading women’s media company with nearly 70,000 unique visitors per month and comprising four individual media properties, SheKnows.com, BlogHer.com, STYLECASTER.com and Hollywoodlife.com, as well as the #BlogHer conference series. In that role, Jenni led all B2B and B2C public relations and communications initiatives. Her background and profile can be found on LinkedIn.