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Perspective | Pitt County educators employ project-based learning to engage students in STEM concepts

Haley Longest’s second-grade students used engineering design principles to build a mini-golf course at their elementary school in Pitt County.

Kenjo Fujii’s fifth-grade students learned about copyright law and entrepreneurship by creating and recording cellphone ringtones.

Media specialist Kristin Stahl designed a unit where fourth-grade students will create a blueprint and curate a library collection for a state-of-the-art media center.

Jason Thomas challenged his fourth-grade students to reimagine the wheelchair for improved mobility and user experiences.

These four Pitt County Schools teachers developed their innovative lessons after completing STEMwork, a program that supports K-12 teachers in establishing and sustaining partnerships with local STEM employers through project-based learning (PBL). According to research, PBL offers various advantages, especially in increasing student engagement. The instructional approach engages students in problem solving, creates relevant educational experiences and fosters skills critical for college and career readiness.

This spring, the STEMwork team of Pitt County educators completed the hybrid STEMwork course, which included in-person orientation, local industry tours and a regional symposium. Pitt County Schools Director of STEM Education Jennifer Stalls stated that the school system prioritizes providing students with authentic learning experiences. Stalls emphasized this begins with equipping teachers with relevant and differentiated professional learning like STEMwork that connects schools to local industries.

“This unique collaboration enriches the curriculum with real-world applications, enhancing students’ learning experiences and preparing them for future careers in STEM,” said Stalls, a Kenan Fellows Program alum and faculty member. “By fostering these valuable connections, the program ensures that educators are equipped with current industry knowledge and insights, ultimately benefiting both teachers and students.”

With a 24-year history of providing STEM industry-connected teacher professional development, the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership at N.C. State University launched STEMwork in 2022 to provide more educators with skills to bridge the gap between education and local industry. So far, STEMwork has served nearly 200 educators and recruited 39 facilitators in more than 30 North Carolina school districts.

STEMwork offers three tracks: a blended institute (in-person and online) combining industry connections with instruction in PBL, STEMwork Sprint, an online-only course focusing on PBL and building industry connections, and STEMwork Connections which gives teams of educators behind-the-scenes looks at select local businesses.

Pitt County Schools educator Lindsey Stalls served as a facilitator for the STEMwork Scholars in her district. Stalls, a Kenan Fellows Program alum, stated that this role offered significant opportunities for professional growth.

“I was able to expand my knowledge of PBL and increase my confidence in planning and implementing PBL,” Stalls stated. “I had unique networking opportunities with local businesses and community partners, which led to enhanced engagement and positive learning experiences for students.”

Through STEMwork, educators gain exposure to various STEM careers available for students in their local communities. With guidance from seasoned teachers like Lindsey Stalls in the pedagogy of PBL, STEMwork Scholars use this newfound knowledge to make their STEM lessons more engaging and relevant.

Before STEMwork, Longest, a physical education teacher at Northwest Elementary School, said she had limited experience with PBL. Engaging in STEMwork made her more aware of the importance of giving students a calendar and teaching them to use it to manage their time and set daily expectations for their projects.

For her PBL unit, students had four weeks to create and revamp a mini-golf course. They sketched diagrams, explored the school’s PE equipment closets, and used any interesting materials they found to build their courses. After the courses were completed, families were invited to play, and the school also invited East Carolina University’s men’s and women’s golf teams to play a few rounds.

“I learned that ‘letting go’ and giving students more freedom can be terrifying, but the result is truly astonishing,” Longest reflected. “It gave my students the confidence to think outside the box, interact with others, and learn how to professionally express pride and confidence in their accomplishments.”

Fujii, a music teacher at W. H. Robinson Elementary, stated that STEMwork changed his teaching practice. He challenged his students to write music for and record ringtones. “STEMwork helped me tremendously with planning lessons and inspired me to create interesting and engaging units that encourage students to work in groups, develop their soft skills, and hone their creative skills,” he reflected. One student even exclaimed that the PBL unit “was fun!”

Stahl, the media specialist at W. H. Robinson Elementary School, has 20 years of experience teaching K-5 media and library studies. Before becoming a STEMwork Scholar, she also had no experience with PBL. For her PBL unit, she created a project for fourth-grade students challenging them to draw plans for a media center.

“STEMwork made me more intentional with my end goal,” Stahl said. “It allowed me to think through the whole project before implementation. It also gave me the opportunity to work with other colleagues and teach students across subject lines. So many standards can be taught with just one lesson, and I believe all educators should have the opportunity to experience STEMwork.”

Thomas, a visual arts teacher at W. H. Robinson School, had some knowledge of PBL before STEMwork but stated that completing STEMwork inspired him to incorporate other subjects into his art program like engineering design. For his PBL unit, Thomas designed a project called “Future Wheelchair.” The goal was to inspire students to design a better wheelchair for a fellow fifth grader who uses one.

The unit integrated subjects like visual art (graphic design/concept art), technology (engineering), and science (health/medical). Students worked in groups of three to four, with six groups in total. Each group created a company name, designed logos, and developed wheelchair concepts in both 2D and 3D models. They learned about the obstacles people who use wheelchairs encounter and created working solutions to address these challenges.

Thomas said the experience helped him create lessons that could help students solve problems. “The biggest benefit of STEMwork is the partnerships we built with our stakeholders. They provided real-world feedback and helped students problem-solve design elements of their wheelchair concepts,” he reflected. “Our students became stronger advocates and deepened their understanding and compassion for people with disabilities.”

Visit kenanfellows.org/stemwork to learn more about STEMwork.

Amneris Solano

Amneris Solano leads strategic communication and public relations for the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership at N.C. State University. She has over a decade of experience directing communication for nonprofits and educational initiatives. Originally trained as a journalist covering education, government, and breaking news in eastern North Carolina, she has a passion for storytelling and strives to amplify diverse voices. She holds an M.S. in Communication from N.C. State University with a focus on communication campaigns and social change.