A-bomb project inspires STEM in Tennessee town

Oak Ridge Schools' chief Bruce Borchers pushes rigorous initiatives
By: | Issue: February, 2015
January 13, 2015

Oak Ridge, a Tennessee city founded by the U.S. government in 1943 as a secret production site for the Manhattan Project, is steeped in technology.

It’s home to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Y-12 National Security Complex and a multitude of technology companies. The complex is a manufacturing facility that plays a role in the U.S. Energy Department’s nuclear security program.

Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers has worked with his board and administrators, and partnered with local businesses, to create a multifaceted program to bolster STEM education. From experimental scientific research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to industry certifications in welding, the district’s students are being provided with multiple avenues to train for STEM careers.

What inspired your STEM initiatives?

The driving force behind how this began was our “Seven keys to college and career readiness” initiative, which was created with input from our staff and community. The seventh key is the most important: “All students should participate in AP coursework, dual enrollment, industry certification or a military preparation program by graduation.”

We found that not all of our students were getting one of those four experiences. We needed to create new industry certifications or courses of study that would provide an opportunity for them when they leave Oak Ridge’s high school.

We are in one of the best locations for STEM, with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Y-12 and other STEM-related employers nearby. The world’s second fastest computer is housed in Y-12. We needed to go back to our community roots. We focused our mission on areas that would lead to STEM careers, pathways and industry certifications that our local businesses are looking for.

How have community resources and business partnerships contributed?

One local chamber of commerce focuses on ensuring that it is supporting the schools in STEM and looking for possible connections between our schools and businesses. We needed to be having conversations directly with business owners rather than looking at U.S. Department of Labor statistics that are usually three or four years old.

Oak Ridge School District

Superintendent Bruce Borchers
Schools: 8
Students: 4,659
Staff and faculty: 668
Per child expenditure: $11,876
Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 53%
Yearly budget: $48,496,128

We are heading down the path of problem- or project-based learning by trying to develop ways or connections to make the learning real for the students, whether it is through summer camp or internships with Oak Ridge National Laboratories. We have a major partnership with Discovery Education.

We are collaborating with Roane State Community College on a dual-credit program that will enable Oak Ridge High School students to graduate and move on to the college for a mechatronics certificate and/or associate’s degree. In addition to partnerships with Tennessee Technological University, we have simulated business environments and work-based learning in our schools.

We are looking at digital tools that can help our teachers meet the various learning needs of students, including math-related tools with DreamBox at the elementary level.

Other partnerships cover multiple areas of study, including:

Wetlands research through the Clinch River Environmental Studies Organization
Computational/experimental scientific research with Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Computer science students working with National Institute of Computational Sciences professionals
Materials sciences camp through The University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Health sciences clinical internships at the Methodist Medical Center and other local healthcare facilities, including veterinary clinics
Industry certifications in welding and dual credit toward post-secondary welding credentials

How has the district supported teachers and educators to drive innovation?

To encourage teacher leadership and new ideas, we have provided additional stipends to regular teachers in the schools. Part of the job of these new STEM innovators and coaches is to look at STEM lessons and how different departments can work together on problem-based issues. We have 50 STEM innovators and coaches across the district. They have license to try new things with this cross-curricular learning and to share the work they are doing in their individual schools.

There are so many great open source tools they can use to enhance engagement. For example, our middle school’s math and English departments worked with students to determine which local agencies had the most impact in supporting families. Through the teen activism STEM project, the students calculated ratios, made conjectures and created digital presentations.

We have a strategic and innovation committee as a structure to gather all the great ideas generated, as well as PLC coaches and analysts.

What STEM-related programs did the district create?

We have Project Lead the Way, robotics and 3D printing. Coding from pre-K and older means students come to the high school more ready to take on high-level math and science classes. We also have one of the best welding programs in the state. Our partnerships with area businesses enable us to offer even more opportunities while using resources not usually available to a school system.

The district is holding discussions with area businesses about how we can make even more additions, such as chemical sciences, given Y-12’s presence in our community. Other subjects being considered for eighth grade and up are composites, drone technology, industrial maintenance and mechatronics.

We are talking with a large local business to provide the material needed and possibly an employee to teach the STEM-related skills the company needs personnel for. Our school would provide the space. Students would benefit from an internship that would give them an industry certification.

We know there are other countries that are going to be producing students like ours. We should be preparing our own for those jobs.

What lessons did you learn?

This is not a one-person endeavor. Getting the chamber of commerce and our school board on board was important. It is very labor intensive talking to local chambers, businesses, colleges, employers, teachers and administrators. We needed to add making all those connections to the regular workload of running a district.

Professional development is always key; as is sitting down with local companies to see what they need in general, not only tied to STEM, to find pathways locally for our students. We needed to ask ourselves: “Are the offerings across the system aligned with the real needs of students and of employers?”

We have incredible teachers and administrators. Honoring those who take on extra duties is vital; they are giving more because they want more. Our school board is a wonderful, collaborative group that supports our STEM initiative. We have maintained the Tennessee School Boards Association’s Board of Distinction status since 1999.

We are changing the instructional environment from what we are used to, to make it real for the students, whether it’s through activities, career pathways or internships. Making it more real for them captures their interest.

When we say we want to be the premiere STEM district in the country, we mean it; our mission is to highlight it from pre-K to grade 12. It has re-energized our staff, especially those in the elementary schools. We can teach literacy by reading a science book or doing a science project. One of our elementary schools even received a $10,000 grant for coding from the private, nonprofit Code.org.

Ariana Rawls Fine is newsletter editor.