Oak Ridge Schools aim to be among America’s premier STEM districts

PHOTO: John Beard and Jim Dodson, Jefferson Middle School, Oak Ridge Schools

Established during World War II as a “secret city” to help develop the atomic bomb in the foothills of East Tennessee, Oak Ridge was kept off the U.S. map for almost a decade. More than 70 years later, educators at Oak Ridge Schools are working to put their historic town on the map as one of America’s premier STEM school districts.

As part of its STEM initiative to emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the school system is partnering with Discovery Education, a company that provides standards-based digital content and professional development for K-12 education.

On Tuesday, the district’s Jefferson Middle School served as host of an interactive social studies lesson led by Oak Ridge sixth-grade teacher Chris Layton and watched by educators nationwide through a live video stream on Discovery Education’s website.

During the hour-long class that focused on political processes, students never opened a textbook. Instead, they watched videos about the federal government on Discovery Education’s “Techbook” and participated in activities such as “political Jenga,” in which they constructed a tower based on the Bill of Rights and deconstructed it by removing rights they deemed least important. They also conducted conversations about the First Amendment using only questions.

“You have kids now, they can Google anything,” Layton explained to Chalkbeat as he prepared for Tuesday’s interactive lesson. “That used to be the carrot at the end of the stick as a teacher. You know, ‘I’m the teacher and I know the answer.'”

The push toward technology and projects has changed the way Layton thinks about teaching. He was trained to think of the teacher as the sole transmitter of knowledge, but now he puts the creation of knowledge more in his students’ hands. Increased use of technology means lessons are less facts-based and more investigation-based.

At least seven Tennessee schools identify themselves as STEM schools that emphasize the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. However, Oak Ridge is the state’s first school system to brand itself a STEM district.

Led by Superintendent Bruce Borchers, the district operates eight schools with more than 4,700 students and is working to incorporate digital technology into all classrooms, regardless of subject, from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. Key to that initiative is a six-year partnership with Discovery Education, an outgrowth of the company that operates the Discovery and TLC cable television networks.

Discovery Education manager Emily Stigman and Oak Ridge social studies teacher Chris Layton lead a class streamed Tuesday to educators across the nation.
PHOTO: Discovery Education
Discovery Education manager Emily Stigman and Oak Ridge social studies teacher Chris Layton lead a class streamed Tuesday to educators across the nation.

The school system in Oak Ridge, which remains a federal hub for nuclear and energy research and technology, is becoming the company’s poster child to demonstrate how digital tools can transform education. During Tuesday’s live stream to educators, Layton’s lesson to students was interspersed with comments to educators from Emily Sigman, the manager of instructional implementation for Discovery Communications. She described how Discovery products might be used in classrooms.

The partnership with Discovery Education is part of an overall attitude shift to embody STEM ideals in the classroom, said Tracey Beckendorf-Edou, the district’s supervisor for teaching and learning. But while the school system is emphasizing the use of computers and other devices to teach all subjects, the emphasis on STEM education shouldn’t be all about technology, she said.

Beckendorf-Edou defines a STEM course as one that uses the four Cs — communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. The district promotes project-based learning, a method in which students learn by dedicating an extended period of time to investigate a complex question, just as much as it promotes the use of technology. To lead the charge, district has designated teachers such as Layton to serve as STEM coaches.

Earlier in the year, Layton incorporated STEM into his class by having students use Minecraft video games to recreate Mesopotamia, the ancient Greek area corresponding to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and northeast Syria. He frequently directs his students to tackle historic policy problems, to see if they would solve them differently.

Project-based learning can be difficult initially, Layton acknowledges.

“For students having lived in the age of standardized tests and No Child Left Behind, trying to dig a little deeper is harder sometimes. Sometimes they’re just like, ‘tell me what the answer is!'” said Layton, noting that students quickly move from that mindset to a more inquisitive one.

“You’re becoming more of the facilitator, and putting them in the driver’s seat,” he said of his role as a STEM educator.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”