Editor’s Note: This article is the third of a three-part EducationNC series on Greene County’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program. Read the first article on how teachers’ student-driven curriculum here and the second article on the county’s early college high school here.
When talking about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, Greene County Public Schools’ superintendent Patrick Miller makes sure to mention one person — Sam Houston.
Houston, president of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center (NCSMT), was not present in Greene County, but his presence is felt there. The center helped with the county’s implementation of an Investing in Innovation (I3) grant, a fund from the U.S. Department of Education meant to expand student achievement. And Houston individually, Miller said, has been one of the most helpful individuals when building a comprehensive STEM program.
“We want to create kids who know what to do when they don’t know what to do,” Miller said while talking about exposing to students to STEM early on, adding that he stole that from Houston. He pointed to black and white bumper stickers around the schools with the “STEM” acronym in big letters. Those were from Houston, too.
Houston said he has been impressed by Miller and Greene County — a small, rural, high-poverty area that faces challenges in bringing kids opportunities.
“They’re integrative and progressive and willing to change when change is a necessity,” Houston said.
He said Miller gets the point of STEM education — that it is not about a set of subjects but rather an overarching mindset. He always changes the acronym from “science, technology, engineering, and math” to stand for “strategies that engage minds.”
“It’s not about just a silos of courses,” Houston said. “It’s about making sure kids learn to think and act creatively.”
He said Miller has been a leader who understands that education is changing — that it’s not going to be the same in the future. Houston said he thinks the time will come when students stop by the school building rather than staying for the entire day.
“We believe school should be the place that we accelerate learning, not that it’s the place kids have to come to learn,” Houston said. “(Miller) sees that and understands partnerships. Greene County understands partnerships as an integral part of an educational experience.”
Those partnerships take many different forms.
The district partners with local businesses and organizations to assess the local economy’s needs and prepare students for jobs that are available locally.
And the district is part of an 11-county partnership called STEM East. At the center of the coalition is the Employers and Superintendents Council — a group of 11 of the largest employers in the area and 11 superintendents, one of them being Miller.
Miller said spreading what works with other districts and counties across the state is a fundamental part of his work.
The district holds a summer teacher academy, for example, where teachers from across the state come to learn about STEM education, how to lead inquiry-based learning, and how to think about the educational experience differently.
Bruce Middleton, executive director of STEM East, said Greene County’s professional development is the kind of resource they’re trying to make sure is shared.
“That’s part of the purpose for STEM East — to find things that are happening externally but internally, more importantly, that all the districts can share with each other,” Miller said. “It’s 11 districts together; we all have something to offer.”
STEM East holds coordinated meetings with business leaders and superintendents to share what’s working in different districts and to keep an open flow of dialogue between the business and education worlds.
“The employers are able to turn to the school districts in a common conversation and say, ‘It’s great that you have a STEM program, but here’s really what we need from your students,'” Miller said. “‘When they leave your STEM program, we need them to have these skills, and this knowledge base, or these certifications.”
The organization also administers a Smithsonian Strategic Planning Institute. Districts have been working for months to perfect long-term STEM plans and create leadership teams. In October, every district came together to work towards their own visions while learning from each other.
Once the strategic planning work is done in May, STEM East will have its third annual E2 Summit, which is another opportunity to bring employers and educators together and share what each district has learned over their strategic planning processes.
“That’s the whole message — a consorted effort to do things is more strong,” Middleton said.
He holds up Greene County as an example of what a unified vision for a district can do. He said that the school system’s plan keeps everyone on the same page and works towards the alignment of K-12 instruction. Most importantly, Middleton said, the plan keeps the district focused. Every time they take on a new project, Middleton said they ask if it fits in their broader plan. If it doesn’t, he said, they don’t do it.
“That’s why they’ve come so far,” Middleton said.
Houston said NCSMT is looking to build a resource and material center in Greene County to hold curriculum units called “kits” that teachers often use in science. He said those centers allow districts to share kits when they are not being used.
Additionally, NCSMT wants to develop networks similar to STEM East in the southeastern part of the state and in the west. It all comes back to changing the way people see education.
“We want kids to understand practices and behaviors that are good across a changing world of facts and information,” Houston said. “It’s strategies that engage minds – and Greene County is good at that.”
Editor’s Note: Sam Houston is on EducationNC’s board.