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How the NC Teacher of the Year engages students in STEM

Mariah Morris, 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year, passionately addressed a crowd about the state of STEM for students.

“It’s not an if this is coming, it’s not a when. It is here, and the question is, how are we going to change our education system to meet their needs?” said Morris.

Mariah Morris, 2019 NC Teacher of the Year. Caroline Park/EducationNC

Morris, who began her teaching career as a high school English educator, is now a self-proclaimed “second grade STEM warrior.” In her presentation at the STEM West: Best Practices, Today and Tomorrow meeting on Jan. 30 at Isothermal Community College, she led the crowd through her journey and pointed out how some of the most successful lessons she taught dealt with failures.

While teaching high school, Morris came to see how students were already “deeply entrenched” in the system and in their minds as to whether they were going to succeed or fail in the world. She realized she needed to reach them earlier at an easier-to-intervene age, so she went back to school and subsequently headed into an elementary classroom. Walking back in through those second grade doors, she asked herself,

“How do I transform my classroom to boost engagement and celebrate my students strengths?” 

Enter a robot and the practice of STEM. Morris partnered with a STEM teacher who brought in Dash, the school robot, and she saw her children light up inside. Morris realized that while STEM wasn’t necessarily a personal strength and something she felt gifted at, it was the strategy that engaged her students.

Morris embraced trials, successes, and failures as she entered into this new world of experiments and experience. She says, “As teachers, it’s not super fun to stand up there and fail in front of your children. And I did that multiple times. Because this is uncharted territory. Innovation is hard by nature, because it’s new, it’s uncharted, there’s no direct path.”

Morris explained that through these failures — and most importantly, as her students witnessed her failures — students themselves were learning about the growth mindset. She says all teachers struggle with how to teach growth mindset and that modeling for students what it looks like to fail and work through a complex problem leads to students learning grit and the practice of not giving up. STEM was the strategy Morris used to engage the minds of her students and give them real world experience with problem solving — all while in second grade.

What is STEM West?

Serving Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, McDowell, Polk, and Rutherford counties, STEM West looks to support “the alignment of educational and occupational objectives through the regional workforce and community partnerships.” The gathering brought together over 100 STEM educators, professionals, philanthropists, and leaders from the area to share ideas and to network.

The day started with exhibits from districts showing off anything from Lego robotics to virtual reality experiments and CAD projects. Twenty-five STEM programs were represented from the area. While it was mostly educators manning their respective tables, some local students were also there to engage with the crowd.

After the morning’s expo, the gathering took an “unconference” approach with participant-led discussion groups. This “EdCamp” allowed for breakouts with topics such as increasing student engagement, workforce development, STEM equity and equal access for all students, coding, and more.

Participants left with resources, hopeful connections to local programs and people, and with an overall sense of how STEM is at work in western North Carolina.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.