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William James vies for $100,000 STEM lab makeover
Supporters can vote Dec. 9 in Northrop Grumman contest
W 050616 WJMS STEM DAY 04
William James Middle School students Heidi Grimm, left, Cameron Halaby, and Gabriel Rowe demonstrate their VEX robotics entries during the school's STEM Day Showcase last May. The team earned a spot in a national robotics contest. Now the school is competing in a separate contest for $100,000 to upgrade its STEM lab. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file

Supporters who visit a certain Facebook page on a certain day, Dec. 9, could help William James Middle School win $100,000 for a makeover of its STEM lab into a state-of-the-art space for project-based learning.

STEM, for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, has been the buzz in primary and secondary education for several years. Almost all of Bulloch County’s elementary and middle schools now have STEM labs and dedicated STEM teachers, providing additional learning experiences apart from students’ regular math and science classes. STEM lessons emphasize teamwork and creative problem solving through activities such as programming robots to perform certain tasks.

“We really want all of our students to start using that creative thinking process,” said William James Middle School STEM director Amy Smith. “I use the engineering design process with them, which is like a cycle of solving problems and creating innovations and producing them.”

Smith and her school have added art to the mix, making it a STEAM lab, she said.

This is Smith’s first year as the school’s designated, full-time STEM teacher. But she was previously a WJMS sixth-grade science teacher, and began preparing for the STEM director role last school year. Already, her students, in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, have achieved recognition outside the classroom. A WJMS team designing and building robots and coding their instructions in the VEX Robotics platform placed in the top 10 in national competition this summer.

The school already has a large STEAM lab, previously designated for exploratory classes. But it has more space than equipment.

“It’s like blank space,” Smith said.

So when she learned about the Northrop Grumman Foundation’s Fab School Labs makeover contest, she prepared an entry, beginning in May.


National semifinalist

The foundation recently announced the 25 public middle school semifinalists, and William James is one of them. Established by Northrop Grumman, the aerospace and defense technology company, the foundation intends to award $100,000 each to five of the schools for STEM lab makeovers.

“Enhancing school classrooms and the tools available to students is necessary for teachers to make the science and technology learning experience inspiring,” said Sandra Evers-Manly, a Northrop Grumman corporate vice president and the president of the foundation.

The foundation also sponsored the contest last year, when grants of $100,000 each were also awarded to five schools in December. Each year, nearly 200 schools have entered, according to the foundation’s news releases.

Contest organizers have divided the semifinalists into five groups of five schools each and assigned them to five online voting days. The first voting day is Dec. 5, but William James Middle School has been assigned to the final voting day, Friday, Dec. 9.

Supporters will need to visit the FabSchoolLabs page on Facebook that day only, Dec. 9, to vote for the WJMS entry. Anyone can visit the page, and, to learn more about the various schools and the contest.

Videos about some of the schools’ entries have been posted on the Facebook page. A video for WJMS was produced but has yet to be posted. Because WJMS is last alphabetically and assigned to the last voting day, Smith expects that its video will be among the last to appear.


Hundred-grand plan

But she shared a description of what she has proposed to add to the lab if the school wins a $100,000 grant.

* Updated electronics, including iPads for the classroom.

* Group lab tables, where teams can work together.

* Updated storage, such as cabinets and shelving, inside the classroom.

* A storage building with a roll-up door for major projects and equipment.  “In the robotics competitions, our projects can get pretty big,” she said. “They can be the size of your dining room table.”

* A small greenhouse for hydroponics, by which she will bring agriculture into STEAM.

* 3-D printers. “Right now we can brainstorm and we can think and we can even do virtual reality, but we need the updated equipment in order to produce the innovations that the kids are planning,” Smith said.

* A larger in-classroom pool for underwater robotics.

Yes, her students do underwater robotics work, learning about buoyancy and depth differential. But the existing pool, about three feet deep, is a small one and shares a side room with the lab’s one sink, she said. She proposed adding more sinks as well.

“So I really just went all-out and told them everything we would like to have, kind of like your list if you win the lottery,” Smith said.

Students in all three grades see Smith four days a week for one semester. Monday is her STEAM Club day, when she works with students in teams, such as the robotics squad preparing to enter a new season of competition in February. Smith also coordinates her work with technology teachers at Statesboro High and works with other teachers at William James who incorporate STEM projects into teaching science, math or other subjects.

“We have a really good chance. ...,’ Smith said. “But even if we’re not one of the five, I’m so excited that this kind of grant is going on because it gives me hope that STEM is going to be done well in a lot more middle schools across our country.”


Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.




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