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Swain schools crack the code

fr students“When will I ever use this in real life?” is often the question students have when faced with difficult subjects in math and science. Swain County educators have tried to answer that question by introducing STEM projects into every classroom.

STEM — Science Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership — is a growing initiative in school systems throughout the nation as educational leaders realize the country’s economic future depends on filling these industry needs. 

All students at Swain East and West Elementary schools, as well as some classes at Swain County middle and high schools, are learning age and grade appropriate computer coding.

“We truly believe that in the near future coding will just be another subject,” said Jodi Marr, an instructional coach at Swain Middle. “The workplace is so digital now and you have to learn to work together and problem solve.”


In the classroom

Computer coding may seem like a foreign language to many people, but for children who grew up with technology, it’s like a second language. MIT’s Scratch program teaches students basic coding while making them feel like they’re playing a video game.

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Marr works with teachers to implement STEM projects in the classroom. Because the technology is just as new to teachers as it is for students, she works to make sure they have the training and tools needed to make the project successful. 

While these coding projects are typically used in math and science classes, middle school social studies teacher Tim Kurr found a way to incorporate the Scratch program into his history curriculum. 

“This is the second year I’ve been incorporating STEM technology into my lesson plans as a way to engage the kids, but I’ve always believed in project based learning,” he said. 

Instead of using his go-to PowerPoint presentation for a lesson in government this year, Kurr’s students used the Scratch program to create “sprites” — animated icons that move around based on the coding constructed. The icons had word bubbles containing government vocabulary and their meanings.  

He was amazed at how his students took to the Scratch program. The projects only took two days to complete and they were more engaged than ever. 

Kurr said they were more motivated because he told them he would select the top four projects to be presented to a special guest — U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers. 

“So here they were talking about Republicans and the House of Representatives — they didn’t know who he was — and they taught him all about it,” Kurr said. “And then he told them, ‘Well, I’m your representative.’”

Regina Ash, Swain’s STEM director, said one parent indicated that her son was asking to take her laptop everywhere so that he could continue to work on his social studies project, which was not like him. 

“Students learned not only tremendous amounts of history and our governmental process, but loads of math while doing the coding for the projects,” she said. 

Some of the schools are also starting Robotics Clubs, which utilize STEM applications. 

Anne Watkins, Vex Robotics teacher and STEM club faculty sponsor at Swain High School, said the Vex Robotics class was offered at the high school for the first time last fall. The class had 24 students enrolled from freshmen to seniors of all different ability levels.  

“They learned to work together, communicate effectively and positively with one another and all gained far more experience than they thought possible,” she said. “Several of them are also working on C++ programming certification, which will afford them college credit and help them tremendously in their future.”

Watkins said one student became so excited about the class that he enrolled in one of the mechatronics classes at the training center through Southwestern Community College. Another student plans to continue by going into music/computer engineering and a couple others plan to major in web design and graphics upon graduation from high school.  

“Our hope is, since interest was so high, that we will also be able to offer an Advanced Robotics class in the future,” Watkins said.


Presidential push

In his proposed 2015 budget, President Obama is pushing for more funding for STEM programs in school systems to train future generations for these professions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. 

The U.S. ranks 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations, which means the U.S. will not be able to compete in a competitive global economy. The goal of integrating STEM projects at a young age is to encourage more students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Ash said the courses and classes in STEM benefit students whether they are STEM inclined or not because they learn critical thinking and creativity in a way that allows students to explore a number of topics. She said STEM jobs pay more both for four year or higher degrees and for two-year degree positions. It is projected that more than 8.5 million STEM jobs will be needed in the U.S. in 2018. 

“Although our students are interested, they aren’t taking the courses they need to learn what they need to know to do those jobs,” Ash said. “Part of that is because we have not been doing as good a job at awareness and educating parents and students as we should have been — but we are trying to ameliorate that.”

As STEM director, Ash coordinates with Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University to recruit and coordinate between the faculties to provide opportunities for students in the STEM fields — particularly leading to mechatronics and engineering. 

In addition to working with parents, teachers and students to make sure they get the training and programs they need to implement STEM in the classroom, she writes STEM grants so the schools can continue offering innovative programs. 

Swain has received a large Golden Leaf Foundation grant to provide one-on-one devices to all students in grades 4 to 8, a Cherokee Preservation Foundation grant that is for increasing student STEM competitions in the WNC region (like robotics) and a People in Need grant from Community Foundation of WNC for completing the purchase of robotics classroom materials and some classroom sets of iPads. 

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