After her first year at Belle Heth Elementary, Principal Tara Grant is proud that the school has moved out of being what the Virginia Department of Education calls an “in focus” school. What this means for Belle Heth is that the school has successfully risen in literacy and testing score among underprivileged students.
Part of this success, Grant said, is due to implementing new STEAM programs as well as moving toward more creative and innovative lesson plans. Some of the activities from this year included taking students to the Virginia Tech Science Fest where they participated in design challenges and engineering programs. Virginia Tech partners with Belle Heth to extend various grants that help promote STEM and engineering programs which, Grant said, will hopefully lead students to high school graduation with a plan.
It is through universities, businesses, and various other partnerships that Belle Heth is able to fund so much of these new programs. This summer, Virginia Tech is doing work with Radford schools by sending teachers and students to their Instrument Maker Camp. These partnerships are not only about getting students involved, but also giving teachers the proper training in STEM initiatives.
“The number one step is teacher investment,” said Grant. “You’ve got to have your teachers on board before you can move forward and they’re getting really excited about this.”
The school has been implementing new technology such as Chromebooks for each student and new robotics. One of the new additions to the elementary is the Qualcomm inspired Thinkabit Lab. There are only two Thinkabit labs in the entire country and the school is working over the summer to have their inspired lab ready for the school year.
Qualcomm is an international technology business and their Thinkabit Labs provide students with a hands-on engineering experience, while helping them discover their unique talents and explore different types of engineering career paths, such as software, hardware and systems engineering, as well as non-engineering careers, such as marketing, human resources and intellectual property law, that support technology companies.
“Really the lab has two parts,” said Grant. “It is introducing kids to STEM careers and exploring their talents and their interests in STEM to see if they align with STEM careers. The other part is really just the hands-on engineering lab.”
Not only do the activities in the lab teach these skills but, but they also teach soft skills such as eye contact and the ability to work in groups.
The lab takes the principles of STEM and employs them in various activities for the students. The inspired lab will help to expose students to the complexity and breadth of the tech industry, teaching them how diverse companies invest their talent, creativity and resources into developing innovative solutions. One of Qualcomm’s goals is to provide students with the tools necessary to learn how to do the jobs that will be needed for the future.
“We want to be thinking about problem-solving all day,” said Grant. “There’s so many jobs out there that are unfilled, especially in fields like computer science because they’re not trained. So we want to provide opportunities starting in elementary school to build the foundation.”
One of the big aspects of the lab is that students will learn how to program Arduino, which are open-source electronic prototyping platform enabling users to create interactive electronic objects. Arduino senses the environment by receiving inputs from many sensors, and affects its surroundings by controlling lights, motors, and other actuators. Students can program Arduino and tell it what to do by writing code in the Arduino programming language and using the Arduino development environment.
After spending 15 years working in the Montgomery County School System, Grant said she noticed that Radford schools have the advantage of smaller sizes, which really helps to kick the STEM programs into a higher gear.
“Our school board backs the STEM initiative. This is like 120 mph it seems like with Radford,” said Grant.
Grant said she would love to see a Thinkabit inspired district in the future and getting resources for every school. Right now McHarg elementary school has their Tinker Tank, which is similar to Belle Heth’s STEM lab. The schools are also opening up more technology-oriented programs such as a robotics class at the middle school level.
The end goal for Radford City Schools is to turn the armory behind Radford High School into an innovation center of teaching and learning, said Grant. This concept would be similar to a governor’s school for innovation.
Right now, the school system doesn’t have enough information to see how students in the STEM program will compare to other districts in standardized test scores, but school officials such as Grant are confident in the students’ ability to perform based on their STEM skills.
“Thinking about what they’re doing at the high school and beyond we want to build the basis here in elementary and that starts with digital citizenship,” said Grant. “It’s a big project, but we are figuring out how each school can contribute and lay the base for it.”