Only 4th school in North Georgia to join this elite group
By Elaine Owen, Editor / Images by Shannon Coffi ~~
BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is an education grouping used worldwide. The acronym refers to the academic disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The term is typically used when addressing education policy and curriculum choices in schools to improve competitiveness in science and technology development.
At West Fannin Elementary School (WFES) one principal’s vision, boosted by the next one with a similar goal, a lot of work by teachers and the community, and students interested in “being the best and the first” led to WFES being awarded STEM certification by the Georgia Department of Education last month.
STEM certification is not an easy accomplishment. Not only were students involved but school staff were required to demonstrate how teachers collaborate with local businesses to provide students with high levels of math and science instruction as well as an integrated, project-based STEM curriculum. The goal is to engage students in discovery so they become problem solvers.
With thousands of elementary schools in the state of Georgia, WFES is only the 36th school to have STEM recognition, and only the 4th in the North Georgia area.
According to WFES Assistant Principal Alison Danner, the two principals (Robert Ensley and Lucas Roof) shared similar goals for West Fannin.
“There was a STEM Conference at the University of Georgia in Athens and several of us said this is what we want. Mr. Ensley (previous WFES principal) was the one at the forefront; the one who saw this as vision for West Fannin and who started us on this path.”
Danner said when Ensley was transferred to the Central Office; there was some concern from the teachers that the next principal might not continue along the STEM path.
Laughing, she said, “We didn’t need to worry. When Mr. Roof was named principal, we all breathed better because we knew he shared our dream of becoming a STEM school.”
However, Danner said, it wasn’t easy as the students had to believe in it and make it part of their daily thinking and their activities.
“They (students) are always busy building, designing and experimenting and have become very conscious of the environment around them.” she said.
The next step was applying for certification—a series of pre-visits with a team of representatives from math, science, CTAE (Career, Technical and Agriculture Education), technology, and business would come to West Fannin and give advice on how to reach certification level.
Roof described the process, “The previsits gave us tons of feedback on anything and everything. So we took this feedback and didn’t just sit on it—we used it. Our teachers used that feedback, and we got better and better.
We used the constructive criticism and put it to use—we got better.”
In November, the team felt they were ready for the final pre-visit. It was scheduled for Nov. 3, 2017—and they didn’t know what to expect.
“When the team came in, they didn’t talk to us. They didn’t talk to the teachers. They talked to the kids. It’s all about what the kids can articulate to them–and kids are going to tell the truth,” explained Roof.
What this means is that WFES showed they are teaching students in a way that they become critical thinkers and can apply the skills they learn to real world problems.
“It means you are doing what’s right for the kids in terms of hands-on learning. in terms of math and science integration, and involving the community,” said Roof.
He gave an example of how Tim Mercier at Mercier Orchards brought young apple trees to the school last spring and helped the students plant them, carefully explaining the importance of good soil and water; how to look for buds on the trees, and watch for insects as the trees grew… The orchard is a point of pride for students as they watch the apple trees grow, and even though they know the trees will not bear fruit during their time at West Fannin, some of them vow they’ll return to “pick just one big apple.”
Another example is the nature trail created by 4th grade students.
Roof says that none of this would be possible without the effort of the entire team.
He said, “I would like to thank our entire faculty and staff for working so hard and so diligently. I also want to thank our parents, community and business partners, our Fannin County School System Central Office directors, and our Board of Education members for supporting us throughout this lengthy process. Most of all, I want to thank our students.”
Danner maintained that while Roof would not acknowledge it himself, a huge thank you is due him.
“He was the integral part that took us to the final phase. He came in and filled that piece that solidified that this was what was going to happen.”
Ensley, the former principal with the original vision of STEM certification, commented, “This has been a dream of mine. I cannot be more excited for West Fannin. They put a lot of time, a lot of effort into making this a success—and they did a phenomenal job. I am so proud of all of them.”