Redefining STEM

‘It’s OK to fail:’ How Indiana teachers are rethinking STEM for the real world

PHOTO: David Marbaugh
Teachers Paula Manchess (left) and Heidi Wilkinson (right) work to detect counterfeit medicines by creating a process to identify the correct color, shape, branding and purity of their samples.

In Kraig Kitts’ biology classes, it’s OK to fail.

“That’s science. That’s the nature of it,” said Kitts, a science teacher at Center Grove High School. “Sometimes we don’t know. As teachers, we have a lot of pressures that everything works, every time, 100 percent.”

This is the message Kitts wants to send to his students. It’s also the message he wants to relay to other Indiana teachers.

Kitts is the mastermind behind the Lilly Experience for Teachers in STEM, a two-day workshop for teachers of STEM — or science, technology, engineering, and math — designed to redefine the field by connecting math and science curriculum to real-world applications.

He interned in Eli Lilly and Company’s structural biology department last summer through a special program for science teachers. As an educator, Kitts was shocked to see how his own classroom lessons reflected in the daily jobs of Lilly’s scientists and engineers.

He immediately wanted to share the real-world applications of STEM with other educators — and his students, too

“I think that’s a big one for me is teaching kids that aren’t honors or AP … that they’re just regular kids,” Kitts said.“Giving them the opportunities to apply real-world skills in places where they may not have an interest in STEM before, but they can be like, ‘OK that’s cool.’”

About 75 teachers and 50 Lilly employees from across the state joined Kitts on Tuesday and Wednesday for the inaugural event. They developed STEM lesson plans drawn from real-world examples and received a number of tools and resources to take back to their students.

Albert White, Lilly’s director of operations and chief of staff, said STEM is about more than being the next doctor or engineer — it’s about life skills.

“STEM is about cultivating curiosity for our children,” said White, who helped plan the event. “It’s also about developing critical thinking skills as well as problem-solving. When you look at the different roles throughout, there are opportunities for all children.”

To understand those opportunities, educators toured Lilly’s manufacturing facilities and discovery laboratories, interacting with individuals at all levels of the company.

White said that by sharing the expertise and exposing teachers to the real-world components, he hopes educators can help students escape the mindset that STEM is only about becoming a doctor or engineer.

That’s teacher Heidi Wilkinson’s plan. Wilkinson, who is preparing to transfer from Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington to Northrop High School in Fort Wayne, recently took a group of STEM students to Lilly’s Indianapolis headquarters where they could see their coursework come to life.

“This is what the subject matter looks like in a job,” she said. “All these things that they’re learning, they actually have an application. Sometimes the best stuff you teach them is the stuff that’s not the required curriculum, but it’s the stuff you let them just get curious about.”

Wilkinson’s team created a lesson plan that focuses on critical thinking and working efficiently. Students will be given a mixture of balls that all look the same but have different weights. They must create a process to efficiently separate the balls into different weight classes.

“We’ve seen so much here that when Lilly creates a chemical they want to extract for some medicine, they have to make sure they have the right chemical,” Wilkinson said. “They have to make sure they have the right chemical and be able to separate it and take all the impurities out.”

At the end of the experiment, students will digest how the experiment can be applied to real life.

Wilkinson said she plans to implement the lesson plan in her own classroom to help students  gain a vision and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Oftentimes, Wilkinson said students complain about a lesson and ask how it applies to their future. Because educators find themselves on a schedule to meet content standards, it’s difficult for teachers to provide an explicit vision.

“To be able to give them that, whether it be, ‘What does this look like as a career?’ or ‘Hey, this is how it’s applicable,’ or ‘Hey, you can actually ask questions about this’ — that pulls them in,” Wilkinson said.

Both Kitts and Wilkinson agree that STEM education is taking a turn in a new direction. While meeting standards still matters, they want to adjust their focus on the skill sets that come as a result of STEM.

Perseverance and a willingness to learn, for example, are traits employers at Lilly look for, Kitts said.

“Someone asked, ‘What do you look for when you hire somebody?’” Kitts said. “[The chief science officer] said a willingness to learn. That’s the guy that’s at the top of the company.”

And on the floor, Kitts asked an engineer whether he ever feels overwhelmed at his job. The engineer said it was his first job out of college, and while he didn’t know a lot about the job at first, he was able to learn along the way.

“To see that from the top to the guy that’s doing the work, that really is valued is a big one because we want our kids to just be active learners,” Kitts said.

“You don’t have to be the A-plus-plus student in AP Biology. You can be the C-plus student in biology, but as long as you try and you have that willingness to learn and you’re interested in science, you don’t have to go to the top, but you can come out here and work and have a good career.”


Tennessee has a lot of early-career teachers, especially at schools with more students of color. Here’s why it matters.

PHOTO: Image Source | Getty Images

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Alexis Singleton is one of thousands of Tennessee teachers in their early years of teaching. She’s one of 14 new teachers at her Memphis elementary school, and she’s seen firsthand the effect high teacher turnover can have on students.

“My students are already asking me if I’m going to be here next year,” said Singleton, a fourth-grade reading teacher at Treadwell Elementary School. “We’re three months into the school year, and they’re scared already.”

Singleton’s students’ fear is founded: Tennessee has one of the highest proportions of early-career teachers of any state — and people who work in its schools say high turnover in schools like Treadwell is a major cause.

Nearly one in five Tennessee teachers were in their first or second year of teaching in the state during the 2015-16 school year, according to data that schools reported to the federal government. That figure was even higher for Memphis schools.

Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s education department say they don’t track how many teachers are in their first or second year in the classroom. Schools report that information directly to the Office of Civil Rights, and school-level data was published in an interactive database newly compiled by ProPublica, a national media organization.

Those numbers matter because they mean that many Tennessee classrooms are filled with educators whose skills still have room to grow, as there’s strong evidence that educators improve with experience, especially during their first few years of teaching but even afterward.

That phenomenon affects students of color and students from low-income families the most. In schools with mostly students of color, almost half of teachers were inexperienced, compared with 8 percent of teachers in schools with few students of color, according to an analysis from the Learning Policy Institute.

One way to reduce schools’ need to rely so heavily on brand-new teachers is to get more teachers to stick around. Across the state but especially in Memphis, teacher training programs are increasingly making this the goal.

Alfred Hall knows the challenges of staffing schools in diverse and urban settings. He was a longtime educator in Memphis public schools – a district with more than 90 percent students of color – before becoming assistant dean in the College of Education at the University of Memphis.

“We realize there are specific needs that teacher candidates need support and preparation for if they are going to be successful, particularly in urban school environments,” Hall said. “Many of our teacher graduates are of a different race, cultural background, or economic status than the students they are serving. They have to be prepared to address issues of equity and social justice if they are going to be successful in their classrooms.”

And Hall added that the stakes are high to retain effective teachers in schools where students have the furthest to go academically – many of which are schools in Memphis with high percentages of students of color and students from low-income neighborhoods.

“I know it makes a difference for students to see themselves in their teachers.”

That describes Singleton, who lives and teaches in a neighborhood that is predominately Hispanic and black. Singleton’s mother is Mexican and her father is black.

She moved from California more than a year ago to join the Memphis Teacher Residency, a training program that asks participants to commit to teaching in Memphis for five years. Singleton co-taught with a mentor teacher the first year, and then took on her own classroom her second with additional mentorship support from the residency program.  

“I still don’t have everything I need, but at least I have a year of watching, observing and doing before I took on a classroom on my own,” Singleton said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how high-pressure the profession of teaching can be until you’re in it.”

The University of Memphis College of Education is seeing in their graduates the same thing Singleton is seeing in her school — a lot of new teachers don’t make it to their third year.

“If we get teachers through their third year, we see that they are more likely to sustain and stay in that field over longer periods of time,” Hall said. “We as a university are much more mindful now of our role in helping teachers reach that benchmark, especially our teachers going into urban school environments, where we know retention rates are lower.”

As a result, the University of Memphis launched a new partnership last year with two school districts in Memphis aimed at addressing the problem of retention, as well as teacher recruitment. As part of the partnership, Hall said, the university is establishing a mentorship program with retired teachers for College of Education graduates during their first years of teaching.

The university is also creating “learning communities” for graduates in their first or second years, where groups of new teachers will meet together outside of their schools to support and learn from one another.

“We want young teachers to share and realize that they are not doing this work in isolation,” Hall said. “We know that new teachers may be apprehensive about reaching out to others in their building for help, but we know that it’s very hard to stay in this profession if you are going through it alone.”  

Tennessee’s largest teacher organization is also trying to keep young teachers in the classroom through new mentorship opportunities. Beth Brown, the new president of the Tennessee Education Association, said that one of her top priorities during her two-year term is recruiting and retaining early-career educators.

“We know the teaching profession in this state is constantly in churn as teachers leave the profession,” Brown said. “This is highly concerning to me, because I know that as a teacher, I got better every year. It’s like fine wine and cheese. It’s not that young teachers aren’t doing a good job, because that’s not what I’m saying. It’s that you get better with experience.”

Brown said she’s going to work closely with districts and encourage them to put more resources into mentorship programs.

“When an educator graduates from college and gets their first job, don’t throw them to the wolves and say good luck,” Brown said.

For Singleton, she said the mentorship from her coach at Treadwell Elementary and from her residency program has helped her immensely during the first few months of this school year. She also said she plans to stay long enough to shed the “inexperienced teacher” label.

“I feel genuinely called to this work,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure in this job, and it’s the toughest thing I’ve done. But I live and work in this neighborhood. I believe in it. I guess I think, if I don’t do this work, then who is going to? That makes me want to stay.”

Teacher votes

Memphis teacher groups want annual pay raises and more say in how they teach their students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Keith Williams (left) and Tikeila Rucker lead the teacher associations representing licensed educators in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis teachers will soon have the opportunity to change compensation, work hours, health benefits, and how they teach if they vote to negotiate a new agreement with Shelby County Schools.

The district’s two organizations, which represent teachers and other licensed educators, say their priorities are restoring automatic pay increases and higher pay for educators with advanced degrees, and giving more flexibility to teachers in the classroom.

United Education Association and Memphis-Shelby County Education Association have been talking with district leaders about making these changes, but amending the employee agreement with the district — through a process known as “collaborative conferencing” in Tennessee law — would ensure the changes will take place with a written agreement.

The United Education Association plans to hold a teacher rally to talk about the process from 4:30 to 6 Tuesday evening at the district’s central office. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is scheduled to be the guest speaker.

Collaborative conferencing replaced union bargaining rights in a 2011 law. The law tossed the requirement that districts and organizations representing employees have to reach an agreement. If there’s an impasse, the school board gets the final word.

The law also narrowed the topics that could be discussed between teacher organizations and the school district. Their agreements cannot address teacher evaluations, district decisions on bonuses and raises based on teacher performance, or requiring districts to base personnel decisions on tenure or seniority.

If educators vote to negotiate, it will be the first negotiation for the Memphis school district since 2015, and the first since the city’s teacher group split into two. Last year, the groups tried to get enough votes for talks, but fell short by about 10 percent. (The current agreement is still in effect.)

Related: Why the Janus Supreme Court case won’t have much impact in Tennessee

Garnering enough support to start talks requires two steps.

First, 15 percent of employees are required by state law to sign a petition requesting a district-wide vote on whether teacher representatives should negotiate a new agreement, also known as a memorandum of understanding. The two teacher organizations, which collectively represent about 4,500 members, have gathered at least 2,600 signatures, well above the number needed.

Next, half of the district’s licensed educators must vote by email to start negotiations. Educators will also be asked in early November to choose which organization will represent them at the negotiating table. The organizations will have a percentage of seats on a committee based on which organization educators voted for.

The resulting agreement would not be sent back for a vote from teachers, but Tikeila Rucker, the president of the United Education Association, said her organization plans to conduct surveys throughout the process “that ensures us that we really have teacher input.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on in March.

Hopson has tried for several years to switch teacher pay to a merit system based on evaluation scores that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises. But Hopson did not want to base those decisions on a state test that has experienced a multitude of problems. So, for the last three years, all educators have received 3 percent raises.

Keith Williams, the executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said the district should combine merit pay and annual increases in base pay.

“I think we should do step and merit pay,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of issues to work out for teacher compensation, including advanced degree pay and people who are nationally board certified.”

Hopson also has brought back some pay for advanced degrees. But only teachers with high evaluation scores are eligible.

Related: The salary slide: as other professionals see growth, teachers’ pay stagnates, new report finds

Rucker said she also wants to push for more flexibility in how teachers use the district’s new curriculum, which more closely aligns with Tennessee’s new requirements for what students should learn.

“Teachers are mandated to teach based on district-selected curriculum and it’s kind of like a script,” Rucker said. “That takes away from a lot of the creativity for teachers to reach their students for academic success.”

Hopson did allow some flexibility based on feedback from Rucker’s organization, but said teachers had to earn that autonomy based on their evaluation scores.