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Sandy Watkins, the road to STEM education started with the conviction there wasn’t enough time in her classroom to cover all the content her students needed. We spoke to Sandy about how she has directed her passion for improving the educational experiences of her students to improve STEM learning for students across Tennessee. She founded an award-winning STEM school in Tennessee and is now a consultant with Tennessee STEM Innovation Network and Purdue University. Our interview with Sandy reveals how she is using the lessons learned from her classroom to change education policy and practice:

Q: Tell us about your background in education, and, specifically, in STEM education.

Sandy Watkins Headshot

Our chat with Sandy Watkins from Tennessee

A: My career in teaching started in a self-contained elementary classroom where I quickly discovered there was not enough time in the day to teach the content information required for each subject.

To better manage our class schedule, I implemented an interdisciplinary approach in teaching that generated a deeper learning in content knowledge for my students.

I continued my teaching career in science education at the elementary and secondary levels while also serving as an adjunct professor at the graduate level. Whether teaching at the elementary or graduate level, my classes always included hands-on activities to keep students excited and engaged in learning.

My career in education evolved into leadership positions. While serving as STEM coordinator in the Sullivan County (Tennessee) school system, I implemented STEM education throughout our elementary and middle schools. I later became the founding principal of one of seven Platform Schools in Tennessee.

Both roles have afforded to me unique opportunities to design STEM programs and to lead in the writing of a K-8 STEM curriculum framework.

I currently serve as a STEM consultant for the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN) and Purdue University in Indiana. As a consultant, I assist school leaders in creating a STEM design for their schools and provide training and professional development in STEM education for their teachers.

Q: Can you give us some details about the Platform School you established?

A: I served as the founding principal of Innovation Academy (IA) in Kingsport in northeastern Tennessee. IA is one of seven TSIN Platform Schools designed to function as demonstration sites, where educators and other stakeholders from across the state can observe STEM teaching and learning in practice.

Platform Schools often try new methods of teaching and learning and share local innovations with Regional Hubs to be disseminated more broadly with surrounding schools.

The Platform Schools utilize problem- and project-based learning in partnership with local STEM industry partners; feature integrated curricula; and emphasize technology as a way to enhance teaching and learning.

Innovation Academy includes grades 6 through 8 (ages 11-14) and provides an inclusive STEM learning environment. Our staff created a strong and engaging curriculum in a unit format that included problem- and project-based teaching and learning strategies, strengthened by a strong interdisciplinary program. Deep, strong, project-based learning focused on STEM exposed IA students to specific roles they will eventually encounter in their future careers.

Unique in IA’s success has been its active engagement of business partners in the community. IA was able to make use of STEM professionals from the region’s businesses to integrate rigorous content with the practices that scientists and engineers routinely use in their own work. IA students experience a paradigm shift from just being told about the STEM disciplines and memorizing facts to becoming engaged in the process of learning.

Central to the design of Innovation Academy’s curriculum is the integration of the arts. The arts at IA equip students with the intellectual curiosity to keep learning and tangible skills that will eventually make them marketable in the work environment. Innovation Academy views the arts as more than just isolated courses but as a method and philosophy that create a personal connection and added depth in the classroom through a creative inquiry-based process of teaching and learning.

Technology is at the forefront of Innovation Academy’s curricular innovation. Teachers at IA have used technology to disrupt traditional ways of delivering the curriculum as they have engaged students in much more authentic, immediate, and hand-on, minds-on STEM learning experiences. In recognition of IA’s intentional use of technology, the school was designated as an Apple Distinguished School. This recognition is reserved for schools that meet criteria for educational excellence, innovation, leadership and a demonstration of exemplary learning environments.

In summary, IA is a dream school. It provides the opportunity for students to learn the best way – the STEM way.

Q: In your recent appearance before the Ohio STEM Committee, what was the gist of your presentation?

A: The main point emphasized was the importance of teaching the STEM way — with motivating lessons and real-world connections. It is critical to engage students in their learning.

In STEM education, lessons provide real-world issues and problems. This type of authentic learning provides a more meaningful and deeper learning for students. Project- and problem-based lessons provide a hands-on, minds-on learning environment in which students not only acquire content knowledge, but also become independent thinkers who can solve problems and develop ideas.

Q: Did the committee have questions?

A: The committee had questions regarding the challenges of STEM education in the primary grades, teacher selection and training, developing community and business partnerships at the elementary level, and pre-service teacher preparation in STEM education.

In answering their questions I stressed the importance of building community, business and postsecondary partnerships with schools. Such partnerships provide valuable resources for offering examples of workplace tasks that can be replicated for the classroom. Both higher education and business partners can provide invaluable professional development for STEM teachers in order to offer expert content information and 21st-century skills to classroom lessons. This is essential for guiding our student toward college and career readiness.

Q: Do you have other roles involving STEM education in your state?

A: I currently serve as a faculty member for the Tennessee Innovative Leaders Institute that provides administrators throughout our state opportunities to view models of STEM integration and acquire best practices and resources to design a plan for implementing STEM education within their schools.

Q: What advice would you give others who are considering founding a STEM school or a STEM program in an existing school?

A: It is important to visit a variety of innovative schools to examine different models of STEM education. When visiting a school, schedule a time to speak to the principal and teachers. Ask about their STEM design plan, the challenges they faced and lessons learned.

Next, invite postsecondary educators and community and business leaders to a roundtable conference to ask about their work and how it could be replicated for the classroom. Develop a strategic community alliance to give students the dynamic, connected learning experiences they need.

Then, take the information that best meets the needs of your student population and custom design an amazing STEM school.

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