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STEM teachers learn how to take students from classroom to career

“O-M-G!” said Tasha Martinez, a Duplin County middle school teacher, as Lile Stephens from the Kramden Institute held his hand over a light resistor on a circuit board. As if by magic, his hovering hand caused the buzzing sound emitting from the board to drop. The workshop was one of a series of “learning labs” at the emPowering STEM Classroom to Career Conference at GSK’s headquarters in Research Triangle Park on Thursday.

More than 100 middle school teachers from across North Carolina attended the event which focused on helping STEM teachers prepare their students for future jobs in industries like energy, agriculture and information technology. The day-long conference consisted of four hands-on workshops highlighting creative teaching tools and techniques to engage students.

STEM Vehicles

Outside of GSK headquarters, two mobile units invited teachers to view opportunities they can bring to classrooms. The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center’s van was filled with crafts to inspire students in the design and engineering field while the FABLAB trailer, a mobile makerspace, featured 3D printers, a vacuum former, a laser cutter and more.

Back inside at the learning lab, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center organizers tasked teachers with making a chariot with a twist. Instead of a horse-drawn carriage, the chariot would need to be designed with materials like mini wooden wheels, popsicle sticks, straws, string and pipecleaners. At the helm, would be a Sphero SPRK+ robot, which, per its namesake, is a robotic ball.

Sphero SPRK+
Teachers used the Sphero SPRK+ robot in one of their learning lab sessions. Yasmin Bendaas/Education NC

At one table, teachers began the first steps of planning their team’s chariot, with much back-and-forth.

“That’s part of the issue with adults. We don’t imagine well,” said Angeleique Thomas, a teacher from Duplin County Schools. “We overthink. Kids don’t do that.”

After completing their designs, teachers took to the hallway to connect their Spheros to tablets and race their creations.

“I think it’s really important for teachers to be able to try these things and see them in person before they do them in their classroom,” said Elisabeth Ulrich, science afterschool coordinator at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. “I hope they feel equipped to start bringing these kinds of activities to kids across the state.”

Information Technology

In a learning lab focused on information technology led by the Kramden Institute, teachers built mini LED and audio oscillator circuits. As wires were placed into the tiny holes, LED bulbs flashed and a low buzz filled the room.

But if just one piece of the circuit was misplaced, teachers would have to troubleshoot.

teachers learn circuits
Middle school teachers made and troubleshooted circuits in an IT learning lab session. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

“I could play with this all day!” said Lynetti Warden, an eighth grade science teacher from Currituck County. “Just the way that the light changed, the sound changes… I think that’s something students would get really excited about.”

Warden said the circuits would also be a great tool for teaching the scientific method and getting students to follow step-by-step instructions.


“How often do you use agriculture within your lessons?” asked Will Edwards, Wilson County Farm Bureau Kenan Fellow. The room stayed fairly silent.

Agriculture in North Carolina is a lot more than just being a farmer, Edwards said. He used the example of the agricultural engineer who, through drawings and modeling, can solve real world problems. To help teachers grasp this concept in a hands-on workshop, he tasked attendees with planning an effective cattle corral system that would keep cows calm and safe. It would combine understanding animal behavior, production needs and efficient design.

“We want the smiling cows, like in California,” said Edwards, who was an animal science major at NC State. “Happy cows do actually produce more milk. Happy chickens will produce more eggs.”

teachers design corral
A teacher from Currituck County (left) and another from Craven County (right) design a cattle corral in the agriculture learning session. Yasmin Bendaas/Education NC

The workshop also shared resources available to teachers from North Carolina Farm Bureau’s “Ag in the Classroom” program, which serves all 100 counties. Even after 33 years in the state, program organizers said they encounter countless misconceptions about the industry.

“It’s simply because the general public does not know what agriculture is,” said Heather Willoughby, a program assistant for Ag in the Classroom.

When asked where their hamburger comes from, students think it is Food Lion, she said. “They don’t know where it comes from before Food Lion.”

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of agriculture jobs in communications, biotechnology, engineering and more go unfilled every year in the state, said Willoughby.

“When you’re in a state where this industry is the number one industry in terms of the number of dollars that it brings in, it has an importance,” said Michele Reedy, director of Ag in the Classroom. “Even at the minimum, if they could just teach those children where their food comes from, if they can simply just have an appreciation for that—that’s what we’re looking for.”


Energy, another leading industry in the state, was represented in a learning lab led by employees of the NC Electric Group, Duke Energy, and Siemens.

A miniature model helped teachers learn how energy gets from a nuclear powerplant to a neighborhood home. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Teachers strung copper wires across two models of a community’s energy grid, which demonstrated the energy infrastructure from nuclear power plant to neighborhood home. With the task complete, teachers showed they were interested in learning about the industry beyond electricity, asking organizers questions about solar and wind energy in the state.

“North Carolina has the second largest capacity of solar in the country behind California,” said Tim Gubitz of Duke Energy.

“The way that power is distributed is changing,” added Lindsey Listrom of the NC Electric Group. “A lot of additional change is being fueled by consumer expectations.” Listrom said the energy industry is finding that people want to be more energy efficient and have a better understanding of how their energy is used.

Kemeka Sidbury, a sixth grade science teacher at D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy in New Hanover County, was particularly interested in the energy learning lab.

“This is the most relevant session that deals with our real life,” Sidbury said. “Energy is all around us.”

She said she planned on sharing the realistic energy-grid model with her school. “Sometimes children don’t understand what an engineer does,” Sidbury said. “If I can show those parallel circuits and those wires . . . that’s going to make it more relevant.”

Beyond STEM: The role of soft skills 

Although the conference focused on enhancing the technical skills obtained in STEM education, the buzz words seemed to be “soft skills.”

“Hard skills are why you get hired. Soft skills are why you get fired,” said Napoleon Wallace, deputy secretary of the NC Department of Commerce, of a phrase he heard his entrepreneur father say.

Workshop leaders reiterated the significance of soft skills, too.

“If I’m talking to a student, I would say make sure that you are focused on core technical skills like math and science,” said Chris Hage who works in workforce planning and development at Duke Energy. “But make sure you’re also focused on other skills, like working effectively in a team environment, collaborating, and being dependable.”

Other important soft skills noted by industry leaders included the ability to take constructive criticism, to have good communication skills and to think critically to solve problems.

“To me, this just reinforces how important it is to teach students about the real world,” teacher Tasha Martinez said. “Continue to teach your students those soft skills. Continue to teach those kids things that are not from a textbook that they need in order to be a productive citizen.”




Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.