A fifth-grade class at Eisenhower Elementary School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, receives a visit from Major Patrick Sullivan of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth. (Matthew Dixon)
Schools around the country are partnering with the military to enhance science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teaching and learning. Joppatowne Elementary School in Joppa, Maryland, is one of them. Because of the school’s partnership with the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) in Edgewood, Maryland, Erin Morring, the school’s math coach, received a visit from ECBC engineers, who helped “extend math, reading, and science concepts for an after-school intervention program” for fourth and fifth graders, she explains. “Several students who had minor attendance issues made it a point to be there for this afternoon session ‘because the army was coming’,” she relates.
Based on the scenario in the storybook Yi Min’s Great Wall, ECBC subject-matter experts developed hands-on STEM activities that focused on addressing Yi Min’s problem: how to build a wall to protect her garden from hungry rabbits. “The engineers explained the problem to [students] and even related it to being overseas in another country, which made it extremely motivating,” observes Amber Bode, who teaches fourth grade at Joppatowne Elementary. “The students had to build a wall that would pass certain tests such as [a] water test, wind test, and movement test. The students had to record the results and make changes to their walls accordingly in order to have the best wall possible.” She adds, “The discussions the students were having were that of higher-level thinking.”
“Overall, the students absolutely loved working with the engineers,” says Morring. “It was amazing to see some of our students [who] struggle at times in the regular classroom become leaders when put into a completely different situation. The engineers were very positive and engaging such that all of the students asked if they could come back again this year.”
According to Bode, “since the activity, students talk about becoming engineers and problems they would be able to solve. They thoroughly enjoyed going through the design process and testing their walls to see if they would pass all of the tests. It was amazing seeing all of the students work together collaboratively and have discussions about how to build the walls. Instead of an individual approach, they worked as a team through debates and discussions; they talked about the pros and cons of building it one way versus the other.”
“[ECBC’s] Community and Educational Outreach Program’s mission is to promote educational opportunities in the STEM field for ECBC’s future workforce generations and educators,” says Mary Doak, the program’s manager. Since 2006, “ECBC scientists and engineers have increasingly been dedicating their time and expertise to various STEM educational outreach initiatives in addition to their everyday work,” explains Doak, because “it is crucial that we are able to tap into a talent pool with knowledge and skills required to fill positions that are paramount to our national security and defense.” ECBC’s scientists and engineers also “find it rewarding to share their passion for STEM with students and their educators,” she maintains. “Collaboratively supporting the community has had a positive impact on the organization’s culture and has fostered employee retention.”
She points out that “technology today progresses so quickly so that we also need to help teachers to enhance STEM-related lessons with real-world science and engineering experiences. Bringing hands-on activities and technologies into the classroom helps students make the real-world connection and apply their knowledge and skills to relevant projects. The Department of Defense’s (DoD) subject-matter experts are literally on the cutting edge of technology and therefore perfectly suited to help students and teachers excel in STEM disciplines.”
Schools receive these services at no charge because “ECBC in particular, along with several other DoD research and development centers, receive special funding from DoD’s National Defense Education Program [see www.ndep.us]” to conduct educational outreach activities, Doak explains. It is money well spent; in 2011, ECBC reached “approximately 7,500 students and 700 educators in nearly 100 separate educational outreach initiatives,” she points out.
On the Cutting Edge
In Kansas, Fort Leavenworth Unified School District 207 has greatly benefited from partnering with the military installation of Fort Leavenworth. “The partnership with Fort Leavenworth extends beyond the basic logistics of school operations into the support of curriculum and student engagement,” says Superintendent Keith Mispagel. “The Army’s Command General Staff College, National Simulation Center, and Frontier Army Museum are some of the unique assets of our community, which we are able to leverage in support of our curriculum…bringing real-world examples of the importance of STEM education to both students and our teaching staff.”
Mispagel and Alan Landever, the district’s director of technology services, created CYBER-TEAMS (“TEAMS” stands for technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, science), a Department of Defense Education Activity–funded initiative leveraging the Army’s resources to benefit teachers and students. “We have rearranged the letters in STEAM to form ‘TEAMS’ because teamwork is vital to professional success today. The mythical image of the lone scientist toiling in the lab has been replaced by the reality of groups communicating and collaborating in multiple venues to solve big problems,” they point out.
“We believe that any initiative designed to increase the number of STEM graduates must view STEM as an educational philosophy, integrate the arts, and systematically encourage meaningful student collaboration,” they contend. “We believe all students should be deeply engaged in STEM learning [early on]. First, so that more students choose the challenging coursework in high school and university required to ultimately become astronauts, technologists, and mathematicians. Second, so that the students who opt for different career paths still benefit from thinking the STEM way.”
According to Mispagel and Landever, “STEM learning as defined by the CYBER-TEAMS initiative means more than memorizing scientific facts or learning mathematical processes. STEM learning is a mindset for approaching challenges and understanding the underlying building blocks and systems. It is also a cross-curricular, rigorous standards-based process of discovery that fosters 21st-century skills necessary for lifelong learning and career success.”
Technology training is a key element of the initiative. “Our CYBER-TEAMS Technology Leadership Academy (TLA)…[met] for a week last summer for training on integrating the iPad and Mac Book Pro laptop as tools to create materials for students,” says Landever. “All grade-level teams of teachers share a cart of iPads for their students to use, and this training was designed to give them a jump start in that process.”
“We have equipment and programs that we can use to engage students in designing, building, and problem solving,” asserts Tammy Irminger, fourth-grade teacher at MacArthur Elementary School. “This partnership has allowed our students to have multimedia tools to learn STEM and how it relates directly to virtually every career field they have an interest in pursuing.”
Bradley Elementary School kindergarten teacher Colleen Toliver points out, “The professional development has been in learning the educational possibilities of these tools, as well as building the foundation for challenge-based learning…, [which] validates allowing children to ask questions, to try new things, to make mistakes.” She adds, “The specialists that have been hired through the grant have introduced me to many resources that are available that I didn’t know about.”
The TLA group has met “several times each quarter for a topical focus workshop in which they learned, and then taught their peers about a topic. Topics have included 21st-Century Skills (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication) and also Learning Spaces (rethinking the learning environment),” Landever explains. The group is now focusing “on Challenge-Based Learning, and we will close out the year with Serious Gaming,” he reports.
“The National Simulation Center at Fort Leavenworth is one of the premier serious gaming entities in the world,” notes Mispagel. “They are providing guiding support to the district’s CYBER-TEAMS initiative…Our guiding focus for this work will be the development of a Serious Gaming initiative that will be thematically tied to curriculum at every grade level (K–9). An ‘Energy Challenge’ will be at the core of the game that experts from the National Simulation Center will help us create.” (See www.cyberteamscenter.org.)
Call in the Navy
Since 2009, Bayside Middle School in Virginia Beach City, Virginia, has successfully partnered with the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) of Virginia Beach, says Debra Defoor, Bayside’s guidance department chair. Working with teachers and students on Bayside’s Green Team garden projects, NECC volunteers have helped plan, create, and maintain the garden; supplied farm equipment and tools; and awarded the school grant funding to build a butterfly and rain garden.
“The garden produced pumpkins and greens to make an exciting harvest for our Green Team students. In total, the NECC volunteers who worked on the gardens spent over 15 combined hours on school grounds,” notes Defoor. As a result of this partnership, Bayside received the 2010 Lynnhaven River NOW Pearl School Award, which honors local schools that help students develop an ethic of environmental responsibility.
In addition, NECC volunteers have mentored students, served as guest speakers, and devoted time to special projects, athletics, clubs, and other school activities. “Our students love their mentors from NECC. Some of the mentors have maintained relationships with their students for over two years,” Defoor maintains. “NECC is truly a part of our school and community family.”