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Academics & Enrichment: A Community STEM Effort

A yearlong effort to provide science enrichment as well as a communitywide STEM event earned this group the award for Outstanding Academics & Enrichment Effort in the 2013 Parent Group of the Year search.

by Evelyn Beck


When Weatherstone Elementary in Cary, N.C., was designated as a science, technology, engineering, and math school in 2012, the PTA became a partner in support of this new curriculum. The group organized monthly STEM Fridays, which brought in STEM professionals to share their passions with students, and a STEM Expo, a fair of hands-on activities. For its efforts, the Weatherstone PTA is this year’s Parent Group of the Year in the category Outstanding Focus on Academics and Enrichment.

“Once we got the STEM designation, we wanted to support the school in every way possible,” says PTA president Leslie Blake. One parent in particular, Sarah Ericksen, had a vision of how best to do this, and she took over a new PTA position called vice president of STEM. An engineer by training, Ericksen brainstormed with the school’s STEM coordinator about ways to enhance what children were studying in each grade.

Once she had an idea approved by the STEM coordinator, she searched online for local experts. When she learned, for example, that students in one grade learned about bees during a unit on plants, Ericksen suggested bringing in a beekeeper. She found a beekeepers association in Raleigh, and she emailed the group to ask whether someone would be interested in coming to the school on one of the monthly STEM Fridays for a presentation of 30 to 60 minutes.

“It was pretty simple,” she says. “I relied on emails and word of mouth. I told them we were a newly developed STEM school looking for outside resources to expand the current curriculum. I asked if they would be interested in coming in and if they had any topics in mind. If not, I could give some ideas for hands-on presentations.” Once she had an interested expert, she worked with the lead teacher in that grade to create a schedule, and the expert often met with the teacher before the visit.

That kind of coordination provided a big benefit to the school. “It’s one thing to bring in a speaker from the police department, but it’s another thing to have a speaker aligned with the curriculum,” says Weatherstone principal Tim Chadwick. “The PTA found those resources. It’s nice to have a very active parent organization on campus that allows us to enhance our curriculum programs. It would have been hard for the classroom teachers and office staff to organize what the PTA did and keep up with schedules and get people on campus.”

Ericksen focused on finding volunteers. “Our goal was to make this as cheap as possible,” she says. She looked to tap into the Research Triangle area’s rich resources, which include several universities. North Carolina State University, in particular, sent numerous student groups to Weatherstone. One group of engineering students helped 2nd graders melt solids to pour into a tube to make lip balm, reinforcing lessons about solids and liquids.

A company called Geomagic, which makes prosthetic devices on 3D printers, brought in a 3D printer to 5th graders studying the human body. The students scanned a model of the principal’s head to create a Pez dispenser. Another visitor was from Science Safari, a store where Ericksen had been for children’s birthday parties; that representative brought in a hedgehog for a presentation on how animals adapt to habitats. In all, more than 70 local resources were contacted. Only two of the organizations were paid.

As the program developed, word spread and experts starting calling Ericksen. After the local paper ran a photo of a visiting high-power rocketry group, she received a call from a local potter, leading to the realization that STEM could also include art and music. The artist spoke to 1st graders about the measuring, addition, and science behind pottery.

Parents also called to volunteer. One father who worked for IBM spoke to 2nd graders about ball bearings and friction. Another parent whose job involved circuitry did a presentation on conductivity. “He figured out how his world could relate to his daughter’s classroom world,” Ericksen says.

An unanticipated benefit of the interactions with college students was the model it gave the younger kids. “Second-graders were making connections, thinking that they might be able to be college students, that this was something they could try for,” Blake says. And there is a ripple effect that continues. Long after their visits, experts still email Ericksen with information to share with parents and teachers, such as free summer programs for children or ideas for class projects. A true network has been established and will continue to develop and reap rewards.

All of this excitement about STEM culminated in the PTA-sponsored STEM Expo, a free event held on a Saturday in March. The Expo showcased the STEM projects created by the children during the year. Teachers and more than two dozen area groups and businesses led activities ranging from fossil digging to underwater robotics to rocket launches. More than 450 students attended. “It was a great turnout,” Blake says. “People loved it.” Along with the event, the PTA offered some low-key fundraisers—a photo booth, a silent auction, and basket raffles—that raised $8,000 to help support future STEM activities.

How To Find Local Experts

Contact local colleges and universities. You can start with their public information office, or email the heads of particular departments. You can also search their websites for student organizations, which are often seeking service opportunities.

Look for local professional and service organizations. You can contact the chamber of commerce or search online for a list of such groups in your area or in a particular field.

Contact your school’s alumni, especially if your school has a long history.

Get to know your town’s small business owners and their areas of interest. They will be eager for opportunities to get their names in front of parents.

Poll your students’ parents, who may be experts themselves or may have contacts who are.

Think outside the box. Identify the talents of your school staff and parents and figure out how they can fit into your needs.

Publicize your activities; then experts will start calling you.

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