Since its creation in 2010, the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network has worked to develop high-quality STEM programming for the state’s students in support of the focus of “kindergarten to jobs.” From its Regional STEM Innovation Hubs and STEM Designated Schools program to its professional development efforts, the network has strived to help Tennessee students be prepared for success in college, career and beyond. Brandi Stroecker is director of the network, which is based in Nashville and managed by Battelle. Brandi takes us through how her organization works and its many programs:

Q: Tell us about the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network – how did it come about, and what is its mission? Has that mission changed through the years?

A: The Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN) is a public-private partnership between the Tennessee Department of Education and Battelle. The network was developed through a Race to the Top grant in 2010. Our mission is to promote and expand the teaching and learning of STEM education in K-12 schools across the state. That mission has remained steady throughout the years, however, our approach is ever-evolving. Our work is centered on:

  • Connecting innovative schools, teachers and administrators to one another.
  • Supporting schools and communities that want to create unique STEM schools and programs.
  • Building community awareness for the need for STEM education.
  • Developing local school-to-industry partnerships.

Q: How would you describe your role at the TSIN?

A: I’m incredibly fortunate to work with a dedicated and passionate team that is willing to work hard to do what’s best for students in Tennessee. My role is to ensure the network offers equitable programming and wraparound services to diverse educators and schools across the state. Strategic planning and assessing the network’s current and future needs are always top of mind.

Q: Your network has been very active in creating resources for students and educators impacted by the COVID-19 school closures. Can you explain the initiatives you’ve undertaken?

The network has taken a two-pronged approach to providing support for educators, students, and parents during this period of school closures with the primary goal being to ensure that learning and professional growth continue during this uncertain time. Our team has developed targeted at home learning resources for teachers and students that keep kids engaged and excited about exploring the world around them.  To continue teacher growth and exploration of STEM and computer science, we are transitioning our professional development sessions from in-person workshops to virtual learning experiences.

The network’s COVID-19 STEAM Resource Hub has been incredibly beneficial to teachers and students looking for ways to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills at home.  The Resource Hub is a portfolio of hands-on, STEAM focused activities available for teachers to incorporate into their virtual learning plans or for parents and children to explore on their own.  The learning topics are centered around three critical components of STEM education: design thinking, STEAM career awareness, and exploration of STEM habits of mind. Currently, there is content built out for every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday through the end of the school year.

Mondays – #MakerMondayTN is focused on the use of design thinking. There are targeted design challenge tasks for students that allow them to use common objects found in their homes to solve a challenge facing our world.  Students, parents, or teachers are encouraged to share their designs using #MakerMondayTN.

Wednesdays – #WonderWednesdayTN is focused on exploring STEM Habits of Mind and provide students with resources and activities to think critically about the world around them. Examples of activities include researching and responding to essay prompts, examining data and drawing conclusions, and designing an experiment to answer a question.  Students, parents, or teachers are encouraged to share what they’ve learned exploring the STEM Habits of Mind using #WonderWednesdayTN.

Fridays – #FutureFridayTN is focused on providing students with virtual resources to explore STEAM careers. Examples of resources include virtual tours of STEAM workplaces and video interviews with professionals sharing about their interesting STEAM careers. Students, parents, or teachers are encouraged to share reactions to these resources or questions about career pathways using #FutureFridayTN.

To continue teacher development and exploration of STEM and computer science, we are transitioning our professional development sessions from in-person workshops to virtual learning experiences.  The network’s Code.org professional learning programs will take place in June and be facilitated virtually by our cadre of computer science educators.  In partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, we are also pivoting our summer workshops that explore the new K-8 Computer Science standards to an online course format that teachers work through asynchronously.  In addition to the online course content, teachers are encouraged to participate in synchronous PLC virtual sessions after exploring the new standards to share innovative ideas, examine exemplars, and learn from one another.

These are unprecedented times in the history of education, our team is looking for novel ways to be flexible and creative, which are the key to successfully navigating this new (and hopefully short-lived) normal.

Q: Describe your organization’s approach to business and industry involvement in STEM education in Tennessee. How has the TSIN worked to foster greater participation of the private sector in STEM education?

A: STEM professionals are needed within nearly every field, many with strong job-growth prospects in Tennessee – including health care, engineering, computer science and manufacturing. We knew we needed to engage Tennessee’s top STEM leaders from prominent industries and employers. Our STEM Executive Council is composed of executive leaders who advise our work and align our programming to workforce development trends.

Q: What is the role of the TSIN’s seven Regional STEM Innovation Hubs? Does each hub have a unique mission and/or programming depending on its geographic area and population served?

A: Our Regional STEM Innovation Hubs are incredible. They have the unique ability to leverage statewide impact by collaborating and sharing projects that have shown promising results through the network. The hubs represent a formal partnership among school districts, post-secondary institutions, STEM businesses and community organizations that are committed to amplifying and accelerating the impact of STEM programs in their regions.

Through the support of an array of STEM stakeholders and partners, hubs across the state create effective educational programs, such as teacher professional development or after-school programming for students, to address the needs of partnering schools, students and teachers at the local level.

Q: What role does the TSIN play in STEM school designation in your state? How does this designation benefit a school, and has the process to gain the designation changed over the years?

A: The Tennessee STEM School Designation process was a collaborative effort between the state Department of Education and the network with many stakeholders providing feedback throughout its development.

The process was designed to provide a “road map” for schools to successfully implement a STEM education plan at the local level. The tools and resources created define the attributes necessary for a school to create a comprehensive STEM learning environment for its students.

STEM Designated schools display an excitement for STEM learning experiences and serve as mentors to schools interested in the process within their regions. Our team has worked to cultivate a sense of community among our STEM schools that share resources, demonstrate promising practices and convene regularly to learn from one another and build leadership capacity across the state.

Q: Your professional development opportunities include the Tennessee Rural STEM Collaborative. Tell us about its mission, how it works to achieve it and its impact. What other TSIN professional development programs have you found to be most popular/effective?

A: The Tennessee Rural STEM Collaborative is a yearlong cohort of educators from across the state that works toward ensuring that all students have access to high-quality learning opportunities in STEM by exposing them to 21st century skills and local STEM career pathways.

The program’s mission is to expand leadership capacity for rural educators and bring positive change to their communities through STEM experiences. Each teacher designs a place-based STEM project that addresses one of three focus areas: community partnerships, transdisciplinary STEM instruction or family engagement.

The evaluation reports show that this experience increases teachers’ confidence and efficacy in embedding STEM practices into their instruction while developing students’ identity as STEM learners.

The Innovative Leaders Institute (ILI) is another program that principals and educational leaders are excited about. The ILI provides participants opportunities to network with other building-level leaders from across the state, visit innovative Tennessee STEM Designated Schools to examine different models of STEM integration and share best practices and resources with the expectation of having an immediate impact on leader practice and preparedness for STEM School Designation.

Q: What has been the interest in, and impact of, your Manufacturing and Engineering Externship Program (MEEP) for STEM teachers?

A: Teachers are overwhelmingly interested in the MEEP program. We received nearly 200 applications for 50 openings. This program is uniquely designed to expose teachers to the tools and technologies used in the rapidly evolving manufacturing and engineering industries. Teachers have expressed how eye-opening this program has been for them.

Participants spend three to five days on site at a local manufacturing or engineering organization, develop an inquiry-based unit around their experience and then implement the new learning with their students. This not only increases teacher capacity but also introduces students to local STEM careers that are right next door!

Teachers receive targeted training in project/problem-based learning and design thinking with network staff, and our team provides feedback on their PBL units identifying ways local community partners can enhance the learning experience.

Q: What about direct financial support for classrooms?

The TVA STEM Classroom Grant Program, sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Authority in partnership with Bicentennial Volunteers Incorporated (BVI, a TVA retiree organization), is designed to fund STEM learning projects in classrooms and schools in the TVA service area. TVA is a great partner and works hard to support teachers and advance STEM activities in the classroom. The network is proud to manage the TVA grant program. This program provides an incredible opportunity to fund innovative STEM projects across the state. Not only does this program provide teachers with financial support to try new things in their classrooms but it also develops a STEM talent pipeline for industries across the state.

Q: How do you help students see the connections between the skills they are developing today and the STEM careers of tomorrow?

The network is pleased to provide two, free supplemental STEM career awareness programs available to every middle school students across the state, regardless of geographic location –  Endeavor by Everfi and Learning Blade.

Endeavor by Everfi incorporates interactive activities that reinforce critical STEM topics and introduce them to emerging STEM industries such as sports data analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT). Students have access to a self-interest quiz and guidebook that provide insight into student skills, interests and aptitudes and how they might connect to exciting STEM careers in high school and beyond.

Learning Blade highlights STEM professions and the technologies used in a variety of STEM fields.  Students explore real-world examples of STEM careers and how those careers use math and ELA skills in practical situations. Learning Blade also provides hands on challenges that teachers can use to support collaboration and problem-solving skills development. Both are very different approaches to getting students excited about STEM careers and raise awareness of the possibilities available to them in high school and throughout their postsecondary experience.

Q: Your future priorities include the expansion of computer science education, rural STEM education and STEM designated schools in your state. How will you tackle each priority?

A: Each priority requires a different approach. We are grateful to our partners for the hard work and effort they provide to assist in giving students learning experiences that shape their dreams for the future.

Specifically, our partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education and Code.org has led to a regional model that removes geographic barriers for districts and teachers interested in offering computer science (CS) courses. This June, the network plans to host three weeks of consecutive professional development that focuses on the new K-8 Digital Readiness Standards and Code.org curriculum.

The goal of this concerted CS effort is to make connections across all grade levels and content areas to enhance learning and inspire students’ interest and exposure to computer science. This work will greatly increase the number of Tennessee teachers highly qualified to teach CS across K-12 classrooms.

Currently, 49 percent of school districts in Tennessee are in rural communities, which is why building a STEM ecosystem for rural educators and communities is vital. The Tennessee Rural STEM Collaborative was cited as a program exemplar in H.R. 4979, Rural STEM Education Act, which informs how the National Science Foundation will support rural STEM outreach nationally. This is exciting news, as we’ve seen tremendous success in this program’s impact on students’ learning experiences during the past two years.

The network also continues to provide rigorous support through the seven Regional STEM Innovation Hubs to meet needs of educators and districts at the local level. Strong STEM teaching and learning experiences rest on inquiry, technology integration, work-based learning and project/problem-based learning strategies that are tied to the real world. It is a diverse, transdisciplinary approach where students are the drivers of their learning.

The STEM School Designation process is a road map that creates the systems and structures to build a strong STEM culture at the local level. The network has developed supports for schools and districts interested in pursuing STEM Designation including a mentorship model with current designated schools among other opportunities. We are looking forward to seeing the number of STEM Designated Schools continue to grow in 2020!

Q: Is there anything more you wish to share about the TSIN and its work?

A: Our team feels incredibly fortunate to be in the position to invest in the growth and development of the next generation. Tennessee students that apply STEM habits today will create the world changing innovations and inventions of tomorrow. This drives our team to continually assess statewide needs to inform the wraparound services and supports the network offers educational communities. While we’ve made great progress during the past year, there is more work to be done. Expanding equitable access to STEM education across the state is our key priority for 2020.

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