Hands-on learning opportunities are nothing new for high school students in Rutherford County.
In fact, the school district has garnered a reputation for providing some of the best Career and Technical Education courses available for students in grades nine through 12.
But an event held this week at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Smyrna was aimed at a younger set of students -- those in middle school. The event was intended to expose those students to career pathways that may lead to high-demand jobs in science, technology, engineering and math -- commonly known as STEM.
The Middle School STEM Summit, the first of its kind in Rutherford County or Middle Tennessee, was organized by Junior Achievement of Middle Tennessee, an organization dedicated to helping young people become economically successfully through their academic choices.
"Dan Caldwell from Nissan approached me and said, 'I've been to your high school STEM summit. Is there anyway we could take that model and drill it down to middle school?'" said Kimberly Young with Junior Achievement of Middle Tennessee. "We recognize the gap that is coming in the workforce and we need to create a love of STEM in younger students."
Three Rutherford County middle schools -- Rock Springs Middle School, Stewarts Creek Middle School and Smyrna Middle School -- participated in the STEM summit this week with each school sending students on a different day.
"It's unique because it's hands-on, they're involved and they're not just sitting and listening to speakers all day," said Rock Springs STEM teacher Nicole Stirbens. "They get to actually participate in robotics, and foam and playing in the math game. So they're learning and having fun and being exposed to STEM careers."
Rock Springs Middle sent nearly all of their seventh-graders -- more than 300 -- to the summit for the daylong event.
Students completed a rotation of activities, including the robotics automation lab, a math competition and chemistry activity.
For one of the events, students had to compete in teams of four to build a structure out of raw spaghetti noodles and masking tape. The goal was to build the tallest, free-standing structure possible, that could hold a marshmallow on top.
Several local companies participated in the event and provided personnel to work with the students. Those companies were Nissan, Turner Construction, HCA Healthcare, Calsonic-Kansei, Franklin Synergy, Pinnacle Bank, Farm Bureau Insurance, Hull Wealth Management, Middle Tennessee Electric Corp., SEC, Inc., Ragan-Smith Associates, EXP Realty, Deloitte, Keller Schroeder, Bridgestone, Valeo, Johnson+Bailey Architects.
"One of the big things (Junior Achievement) tries to do is put a volunteer in front of students so it's not just coming from a teacher or a parent," said Rachel Dyer, senior director of operations and programs for Junior Achievement of Middle Tennessee.
Students too often get frustrated in middle and high school when subjects get harder and they don't understand why they are learning the material. JA's use of volunteer industry representatives is meant to give students another perspective so they can see the skills being used by an expert.
"That's the question students always ask when they come home, 'why am I learning this?'" Dyer said, adding, "It gives kids the reason for understanding why they're doing what they are doing."
To learn more about Junior Achievement of Middle Tennessee, visit www.janash.com.