NC Teachers breathe new life into lessons through STEMwork

Hendersonville Middle School teacher Jill Jackson finds math problems in unexpected places. Consider the southern migration of the Monarch butterfly. Jackson turned their annual journey across North America into a seventh-grade math lesson about integers. 

Using project-based learning (PBL), Jackson’s students traced the latitude and longitude coordinates of Monarch butterflies as they migrated to Mexico. To bring the lesson to life, her class adopted three caterpillars. Her students marveled as they watched the caterpillars evolve through the chrysalis stages. 

Jackson’s PBL unit on butterflies and integers was her capstone project for the 2022-23 STEMwork Professional Learning Institute. This is the second consecutive year she has participated in STEMwork, an initiative of the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership (KFP) at N.C. State University. The blended professional learning program guides K-12 North Carolina educators through the process of building education/industry partnerships. Teachers then bring those connections into their classrooms through PBL. 

Bridging the Education/Industry Divide

Now in its second year, STEMwork addresses the need to bridge education and industry to illuminate regional career pathways for K-12 students and help fill the workforce pipeline with local talent. In the summer, STEMwork Scholars tour a variety of local businesses and industries where they gain a firsthand perspective of the skills North Carolina employers desire. 

Last year, Jackson designed a PBL curriculum that challenged students to build and paint a doghouse for various-sized canines. The unit teaches students how surface area and volume vary as a rectangular prism’s dimensions change. Jackson invited a representative from a local carpentry business to evaluate the students’ projects and share how math is applied in their industry.

“STEMwork encouraged me to look for opportunities to have students learn the material through experiences.”

Jill Jackson, Henderson County Schools

Jackson is among a cohort of 64 teachers who completed the 2022-23 STEMwork year. She belongs to a group of scholars in Western NC who were supported by the Dogwood Health Trust, Meta, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Tia McLaurin and SouthState Bank

Forming Communities of Practice

STEMwork Scholars work in small teams of teachers as they complete a series of eight online modules and develop their curricula. A KFP alum trained as a facilitator guides them through the course which includes orientation, industry site visits and online professional development. The 2022-23 STEMwork Scholars will display their final products at a series of symposiums across the state in May. 

Taylor Wilson, a food and nutrition teacher at Chase High School in Rutherford County, designed her STEMwork PBL unit as a food competition, Cupcake Wars. Her project grew out of a partnership between her high school students and students from a local elementary school. High school students help the elementary students practice their reading skills. Cupcake Wars was inspired by their readings on international holidays. 

For the competition, the elementary students selected their favorite international holiday, and the high school students baked a dozen scratch-made cupcakes and created a custom display inspired by the holiday. High school students set aside a single cupcake to be judged on taste, texture and appearance. Their remaining cupcakes were displayed in the high school’s library where the displays were judged on the execution of the theme. 

Creating Aha Moments 

Before STEMwork Taylor said she implemented several PBLs but STEMwork gave her a more in-depth structure that helped her set clear goals for students. “I have really enjoyed learning the components of each module and gaining a better understanding of how to create effective PBLs,” she said. “I truly think that having the opportunity to do a deep dive into PBL has been the biggest benefit.”

Marissa Grooms, a Career Technical Education teacher in Moore County, has been teaching for nine years. Her STEMwork unit tasks seventh-grade students to work as medical professionals and create marketing materials to educate patients about a cardiovascular or respiratory illness. Students developed a video, podcast, or infographic to educate patients about disease treatment and prevention.

Grooms said she tried writing PBL curricula before but struggled with putting the pieces together. STEMwork helped her understand the process behind PBL and gave her the ability to inspire students to create a product with real-world implications. “I now have a new strategy that can empower students to be creative, collaborate and problem solve,” Grooms said.

“It’s like the aha moments we always talk about. Or the times when you can see a student’s engagement and you know they’re getting it.”

Marissa Grooms, Moore County Schools

Registration for STEMwork 2023-24 is underway. 

Thanks to our 2023-24 STEMwork supporters

Belle Jar Foundation, John Atkins, Dogwood Health Trust, Meta, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Tia McLaurin, SouthState Bank, John and Jane Hardin Endowment, Moore County Schools and Scotland County Schools