Five years ago, teachers at Whitlow Elementary School got on Pinterest that week to come up with lesson ideas for their weekly STEM class.
Today, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is blended into learning throughout the campus, from inside the classroom to outside in the garden, where each grade studies a different aspect of the crops and ecosystem.Those lessons and efforts came to fruition Monday when State School Superintendent Richard Woods visiwd the school on Castleberry Road in Cumming to present Whitlow with a STEM certification from the Georgia Department of Education.
Whitlow is now the only school in Forsyth County to be dual-certified from both the state and AdvancED, a nonprofit accreditation organization that bestowed Whitlow’s first distinction in November 2015.
“There’s a passion for the children here. [State STEM certification] doesn’t happen unless there’s a determination to give the best for the kids,” Woods said. “What we’ve found is there’s a lot of collaboration starting at the central office with [Forsyth County Schools Superintendent] Dr. [Jeff] Bearden all the way down to the teachers here at this school.”
To achieve state STEM accreditation – the STEM Academy at Forsyth Central High School is the only other certification in the district – school submit an application to show they meet specific criteria, including evidence of teacher collaboration, business and industry partnerships, high levels of math and science instruction and an integrated, project-based STEM curriculum.
A team from the GADOE visits campuses to observe the school curriculum or specialized academy, and schools that are STEM-certified must reapply every five years.
“STEM reaches the higher critical thinking parts of the brain we want our kids to develop, and it sets up their future,” Woods said. “Many of the things they experience as they move on as STEM-related, as well as beyond school. Many of the jobs in the future and especially in Georgia are STEM-related.”
The district superintendent, Jeff Bearden, said he is impressed by how many times Woods has visited Forsyth County – of the more than 180 district, Woods has made the trip to Forsyth more than five times since taking office in 2015.
“Seeing the very best of education is something we want to offer all of our kids in the state of Georgia, so seeing it at its best shows me to initiatives that work,” Woods said. “When I talk with the governor, the lieutenant governor and legislators, looking at policy and planning, it allows us to prioritize so we can know what to offer.”The curriculum Woods and the certification review team saw at Whitlow is what Lynne Castleberry, principal, said makes her so proud.
“There’s a high level of engagement here. Our kids are taught how to ask questions and work together and take ideas from several people and make it better,” Castleberry said. “And how to persevere. Kids sometimes go, ‘Oh, I’m finished. It doesn’t work. I’m not doing that anymore.’ Our kids know that even after something is finished, we look at it and say, ‘How can we make it better? How can we re-evaluate?’”
She said a STEM lesson at Whitlow is “not your traditional classroom.”
Instead of relying on Pinterest week by week, classes, for example, spend a whole year learning about their school garden. One grade focuses on soil. One on crops. Another on animals.
“We knew we were a good school [before applying for certification], but the rigor of what we were doing was just kind of basic. We wanted to increase the rigor, and we knew that STEM was kind of the future of what our kids are doing and the goals and expectations of what they needed in high school and what they needed in life,” Castleberry said. “That critical thinking piece. It just all fit together.”