Creating the STEM pipeline: The A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering

08/21/2012
SEEN Interview
Stephen Murphy Editor-in-Chief

The A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering is the first elementary school in South Carolina with a school-wide engineering curriculum. Their innovation is apparent in many ways — from the unique curriculum to the strong community partnerships within Greenville, SC.

AJW opened its doors in August 2010, as a K4 (four year old kindergarten) through third grade school and will add fourth grade for the 2012-2013 school year and fifth grade for 2013-2014.

SEEN spoke with Tom Roe, the Curriculum Director of the school, and W. Ansel Sanders, Program Director, to get an overview of the school’s revolutionary vision and approach.

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Pictured l-r: Tom Roe, W. Ansel Sanders and Principal Margaret Thomason.

SEEN: Tell me a bit about the school’s background.

Sanders: This school has been promised to the inner city community in Greenville, SC for 40 years. It is the fulfillment of that promise that the AJ Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering has been opened. The school is also a huge part of the revitalization of downtown Greenville.

The Salvation Army’s Kroc Center was a big part of this as well. The Kroc Center was already under construction, so the district was able to use some of that property to build the school in the west Greenville area. The district and Salvation Army collaborated to build their facilities on the same campus — with both very connected to the fabric of downtown Greenville.

The Kroc Center and the school have a unique partnership — this is the only elementary school that was built along with a Kroc Center. Finding enough land to build a school in the inner city is a big challenge and this partnership helped with that.

The name of the school has significance as well — A.J. Whittenberg was a pioneer for civil rights who is best known for his stand on the integration of Greenville County Schools. We are proud of that historic legacy.

SEEN: What is the mission of the school?

Sanders: Our goal is to show students options for future vocations. We are not there to train engineers. But we are here to show them that there are options out there. If they find through our curriculum a career option then that is something they can explore in the future. We want the students to experience as many fields of engineering as they can, so that they can see those as possibilities in the future.

We are a 21st century school for 21st century learners, so the learning has to look different and the environment needs to look different. The key skills we are developing are critical thinking skills, collaboration and communication skills. And we really are trying to promote creativity — fostering curiosity through engineering, teamwork and technology.

The fascinating thing about where we are in the 21st century is that, while knowledge changes, there are some things that do not change: you really have to be a good reader; you need to communicate well through writing.

I think if Rip Van Winkle woke up today, the only thing he would recognize is the schools – that’s a scary thought! We keep hearing from people that “this doesn’t look like a school.” Another issue is “why STEM?” Every job in the future is going to be a STEM-related job. So STEM education has to start as early as four years old (which is where we start). These four year olds are graduating in 2025 — what will the world look like when they get into the job market? As educators, we have to consider that and give them the applicable skills and thinking skills to work in whatever environment and jobs will exist then. That is certainly part of the vision.

We are trying to nurture problem solvers — engineers are problem solvers and that’s a big part of what they will have to do in their jobs. This is a key component of what our students have to do. All of these factors need to be considered when all the pieces are put together.

When we go out into our community — especially to the engineering firms in Greenville — we hear those 4 Cs [critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity] over and over and over.

SEEN: We have covered, in prior issues, the dire need in the United States for STEM-engaged and STEM-proficient students moving into higher education and eventually the workforce. How does your approach address this need?

Roe: What we have done [in the past] in education — and this is a global answer — is that we have taught kids chunks of information that are taught in isolation. But we never require them to use these chunks of information in a meaningful way.

The way we approach learning [at AJW] is to give everything that kids learn context. The engineering framework pulls everything in the STEM equation tighter. We make sure the kids have to apply what they are learning to give them a purpose for learning it. If kids can see the purpose in what they are learning, it immediately increases their engagement.

SEEN: Do you know of other elementary schools of engineering?

Roe: When I started working on this there were four others in the nation, but now others have been popping up. Many of them have been coming to visit Whittenberg — it is like a pilgrimage! — and they do go through similar processes to ours.

I was given three years to get the AJW curriculum in place. Some of these schools are given only a few months to do this. The problem here is that it needs to be done strategically to have the best impact — even down to the way the facility looks.

Whittenberg is a public school — it’s not a magnet, charter, etc. There are no criteria that students need to meet to go to this school. It’s not just the “gifted” students who get to be involved in the engineering like at some other schools.

SEEN: Tom, how did you get involved with this project?

Roe: I was called to the superintendent’s office — like being called to the principal’s office! She conveyed to me that she had a vision for a public elementary school with an engineering focus. Greenville has the largest number of engineers per capita in the U.S. so there is a definite fit there and we were uniquely aware of some issues. Engineers are a critical need in the U.S. workforce — and a lot of these jobs have to be outsourced (or non-U.S. citizens must be brought in).

SEEN: Tell me about the students at Whittenberg.

Sanders: AJW serves a historically underserved community – we are in an urban area. Currently we have approximately 300 students and about 70 children come from within the school’s attendance area — which is only the mile and a half area around the school.

However AJW is a school of choice. This element of choice allows enrollment to be open to ANYONE in Greenville County on a first-come, first-served basis. This has created a unique, diverse group of students. And because the students work collaboratively, the diversity becomes such an asset to the learning. They are automatically given the 21st century skill of working with diverse groups.

The level of excitement within the community has been overwhelming. This past year we had a “tent city” set up with parents camping out to get their kids into the school — they were camped out from Thanksgiving Day until Dec. 1 [when registration began].

We started [last year] with grades 4K (four years old) through third grade — then we are adding a new grade each year. This coming year fourth grade will be added. We wanted to be sure that we could sustain this model and refine it as we go along. This has been done very deliberately to ensure success and so that we have been able to create a culture for the school.

There is a learning curve for students. They need to learn the common language of the school, the technology, etc.

SEEN: Can you tell me, at a high level, what the curriculum looks like?

Roe: Every school has to function under state standards because of testing. So I started to look at what we teach and I looked at problem-based learning. Students work in groups of three to four. This is ideal — any more than four and it’s hard to get students to stay on task.

I started to call engineering firms in our area to ask what process they follow to work on projects and asked them to share a process with me.

So what we came up with is to take a problem in story form, a problem that is based in a specific type of engineering. Each problem forces a student to come up with their version of the technology needed in the solution (in this case, technology could refer to a pencil or a pen, not just to computers). Then they start to create a prototype, based on the criteria in the story. The prototype is put in motion and they go through trials to test the prototype. Then the students step back to evaluate the prototype — how did it work? How could it work better? We found out that kids naturally fell into a reflection and rebuild mode. I was worried they’d get upset if something didn’t work properly!

For example, in second grade, students have to learn about plants, insects and some animals as part of their science requirement. Specifically, they need to looks at plants, regeneration and pollination, and the role of insects in pollination. The engineering problem they take on has to do with creating a pollinator which helps farmers increase crop production on their farms.

Teachers incorporate various subject areas into these problems — so, for example, in this problem students are also looking at geography, e.g., within the U.S., what kinds of crops are planted in different regions? This is a way to encompass science and geography within one engineering problem.

Another example: a grade level looks at wind and weather related topics. Wind is also a big power source. Students were asked to come up with the best way to capture wind to propel windmills which will produce energy.

Last year we wrote a grant that included funding for arts education, so I had to create a unit that included a play, in this case Peter Pan. I created an engineering problem/story in which kids had to make a pulley system to enable Peter to fly. Each team had to create a system to lift a doll up in the air. When they went to see the live show, students were more interested in the backstage stuff than in watching the show!

Within each academic year, students experience four core units, each of which targets a specific field of engineering. Each grade level works on a different four and, of course, sometimes some units are repeated because the rigor is different in Kindergarten versus, say, fourth grade.

SEEN: How do students (this young) react to being in a STEM lab environment?

Roe: Whenever they are in the STEM lab, they really are scientists. Students could not wait to get to STEM Lab. AJW has one STEM lab for grades one, two and three. So students are always kind of clamoring to get to go to STEM Lab. As an example, our second graders get to work on robotics in STEM lab. They start constructing gears — students are excited to get involved with this!

The students perform team evaluations and look at how well they work together. Students are really tough on each other. They also do a self-evaluation.

SEEN: What happens to these kids once they move forward into middle school? Is there a concern that moving from this model back into a “regular” school will be problematic?

Sanders: This is one of the questions that we ALWAYS get asked. What happens after fifth grade? In August 2014 a new middle school will open, modeled around the same philosophy as Whittenberg — a lot of problem based learning, etc. Students will have the choice to go there. The timing aligns with our first class of fifth graders graduating.

In a larger sense, we feel that Whittenberg has forced schools to look at what teaching and learning looks like in their schools, and adapting to 21st century skills.

SEEN: Describe the teacher’s role in your model.

Roe: Well the teacher’s role changes. Each teacher does have to be the dispenser of knowledge. But they are also facilitators as well as collaborators. So the role changes within the classroom. They don’t necessarily give students the answer but they do question students in such a way to bring them to the right answer.

SEEN: Do teachers get special / additional training?

Roe: Yes. The first year we were open, my dream was to have teachers on board for a full year before the school opened so they could get training and great preparation. It’s not a huge surprise that that did not happen! So the teachers came in for three weeks — without pay — to get full days of training on engineering, software, robotics, technology, et.al. For the whole school year, every single Wednesday we had mandatory workshop sessions after school. On Mondays and Thursdays we had optional sessions as well. This still continues.

SEEN: Where is your teaching staff from? Did you have special requirements when staffing the school?

Roe: The first thing that we looked for was thinking outside of the box – how comfortable you are with that. You have to be really curious. I worked at the district level before my time at Whittenberg. I knew several teachers who I thought would be a good fit for this project. We had an invitation-only “come and learn about us” session. We then continued to have sessions after that for anyone who was interested.

At the beginning we had an avalanche of resumes. Teachers were really clamoring to work at AJW.

In our first year, we had a difficult time finding early childhood teachers (K and preschool) — we needed six positions. The rest of the teachers were veterans. We have one teacher with 38 years of experience, several with almost 20 years and some new ones. These teachers felt revitalized — veteran teachers felt like new teachers again. Their excitement and love of teaching was rekindled.

Teacher retention at the school has been amazing. Our teachers are thriving in the school and they are really sought after now because of their experience at Whittenberg.

SEEN: One of the things that makes AJW unique is the involvement of the community and the partnerships. How did those come about?

Sanders: Community partnerships were part of the initial vision for the school. “Community School” was used often to describe this project. Our community is a stakeholder in the school — shared resources in the community and the schools for the betterment of both. The Kroc Center is certainly a large part of that.

The Kroc Center is a partner that has been there with us all along. In terms of programming, it’s about a shared use of space between the school and the community center. That idea was woven through the planning on both facilities. For example, we can use the Kroc Center for PE and for after school programs/summer camps. The Boys and Girls Club has an entire wing of the Kroc Center. And the Kroc Center can use the school’s instructional spaces to teach their adult programs: literacy, GED, computer literacy, etc. The goal is sharing space — creating a true community space.

Beyond that, Greenville has a thriving engineering community. We have the opportunity to invite engineers to classes; they are helping students. For example, Michelin led the development of the pulley system for the Peter Pan problem.

Every month we partner with a local engineering business [they participate on a volunteer basis] to supply hands-on learning — to show students what they do. It allows these companies to show how the way they work in their jobs is similar to what the students are doing every day in the classroom — solving problems by thinking creatively.

Companies do this to increase employee engagement and morale. Fundamentally, these are engineering companies that need a workforce and they need a quality public school system nearby so that they can attract the best employees to the area.

We also look for support financially from some partners. As a public school, we are always looking to save and to cut budgets so we need alternate ways to find funding. It’s a great opportunity to get our community involved in the school.

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Issue 16.1 | Spring 2014

Southeast Education Network

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