You may have noticed a few new items at Christiana Middle School this year.
On the light poles in the parking lot outside, for example, there are banners that read, “We Are Christiana,” “Go Cougars,” or simply, “Christiana Middle School.”
On a wall in the cafeteria, there are large, black vinyl block letters — they were installed last week — that again say “We Are Christiana.” The wall art flies resolutely over the students while they chat and eat their meals.
It’s fine if you haven’t noticed these new items, because Principal Kyle Nix is quick to point them out to visitors.
She walks through the hallways like a well-pleased mama — the pride in her school as readily apparent as the new signage around campus.
But the changes at Christiana Middle go far beyond new banners and lettering.
Now in her third year as the school’s principal, Nix has been working with her team of educators to create a culture of discovery and problem-solving, and she is adamant about the plan for her school:
“I want to be the first STEAM-designated middle school in Rutherford County,” Nix said.
MORE: About two years ago during Nix’s first year as principal, she pulled together the leadership team to start the planning process for gaining the STEAM designation.
In the education world, STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and it is used to describe academic programs centered around those fields. Some also use the acronym “STEAM,” which is the same type of program but the extra “A” stands for Arts.
To become STEM- or STEAM-designated, a school must meet the requirements laid out by the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network and the Tennessee Department of Education.
“When you are applying, you really need to prove that you are incorporating STEAM in multiple different ways,” Nix said.
Last spring, Smyrna Elementary School became the first Rutherford County school to receive the designation. After completing a rigorous application and vetting process, the school received $30,000 to spend toward implementing additional STEM / STEAM programming for students and professional development for faculty and staff members.
Nix wants Christiana Middle to be the next school to receive the honor, although two other Rutherford schools are also in pursuit. Those schools are Thurman Francis Arts Academy and Stewarts Creek Middle School.
“We want to be STEAM-designated because we believe in our STEAM program, and STEAM designation will not only recognize that our program is effective, but it will also allow us to be able to mentor others who want to begin incorporating the program into their schools,” Nix said.
Last school year, Nix and her team began experimenting with challenges for each grade level to complete, and these challenges required the students to use a rigorous problem-based process to find solutions.
After evaluating those challenges and working out some logistics last year, they are formal projects this year, Nix explained.
The STEAM focus is now baked into the school’s schedule, and more importantly, its culture.
“STEAM, in general, is something we try to incorporate all of the time,” Nix said. “Every classroom is supposed to be incorporating the ‘Engineering Design Process,’ which should be the foundation of how you complete any STEAM project.”
Each week, the school has “STEAM Thursdays,” which includes dedicated times for each class to work on their projects with teachers.
For the challenges, sixth-graders are tasked with creating an irrigation system for an area that has limited access to water. For example, some groups will be given California and must to design an irrigation system for its region.
For seventh-grade, students must create a food delivery system for a region but without the use of cars. Eighth-graders must design a car that is safe for all the occupants.
To find solutions for these problems, students must use the aforementioned “Engineering Design Process,” which is a system of steps used by engineers and scientists.
Those steps include identifying a problem, and then researching, imagining, planning, creating, testing and improving a solution.
Seventh-grade English teacher Carlie Littrell has her classroom decorated with STEAM-themed guides and resources for students.
Her bulletin board, for example, has the Engineering Design Process illustrated as a flow chart, and the teacher has a flower she uses to mark which phase they are in. It serves as a visual reminder for students as they navigate the process.
“As we move from step to step, we move the flower because, well, I like flowers,” Littrell said.
Two of her students, Emma Hettish and Ivy Bryant, are deep into the research phase, where they log their findings into notebooks for future reference.
“We’ve learned today what fuel is, like coal, gas or oil, and also we’ve learned what groceries are and what systems we can use,” Ivy said.
Emma said she enjoys learning to use the process for problem-solving.
“It helps kids learn how to really do things in the real world,” Emma said.
The students will continue working through the process leading up to a “build day” in late September. The school will then host a parent night in October for the students to showcase and explain their final projects.
Then beginning next quarter and again next semester, students will start over with a new set of challenges provided by the school.
The skills they are mastering are intended to serve them for years to come, Nix said.
“STEAM pushes all students to problem-solve, collaborate with others, and think at a higher level, which will help our kids develop those 21st century skills needed to be successful in secondary and post-secondary opportunities,” Nix said. “It also exposes them to a plethora of career options and pathways to better prep them choosing career courses at the high school level.”
Story by James Evans
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