Portland East Middle School was one of 22 schools in Tennessee to receive the STEM school designation for 2020.

The honor recognizes schools for their commitment to promoting and integrating STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into their curriculums to prepare students for post-secondary education and career success.

“Our teachers worked really hard with that, and our students worked exceptionally hard,” said Portland East Principal Jackson Howell. “This will open up opportunities for our students who go into the workforce where STEM projects and STEM jobs are what is available.

“The STEM route is going to give them hands-on opportunity to see how things work and what they look like, very similar to what the TCAT (Tennessee College of Applied Technology) does. They’ll already have the job skills they need to be successful immediately.”

Portland East is the first middle school in Sumner County to receive STEM recognition and one of 48 schools statewide to be recognized since the program began in 2018.

Current STEM schools in Sumner County are William Burrus Elementary and Jack Anderson Elementary in Hendersonville, Oakmont Elementary in Cottontown, and Union Elementary and Station Camp Elementary in Gallatin. Pope John Paul II, a private school in Hendersonville, also earned the designation for 2020.

“I’ve worked pretty closely with Jenna England, the STEM teacher at Portland West, and we’ve seen some of the benefits at other schools,” said Sarah Combs, who teaches computer science at Portland East and helped lead the effort to gain STEM designation at the school. “For us, it was about the four C’s — creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking.”

In addition to the recognition, each 2020 STEM school will receive a $10,000 grant to sustain and expand their programs.

“Investing in our students’ futures starts with preparing them for the jobs of tomorrow,” said Gov. Bill Lee in a press release announcing the grants. “The Future Workforce Initiative will increase access to important career and technical education for students at all levels, and we’re glad the state can help our STEM-designated schools build upon their great work.”

The news was shared with staff, students and families on social media and with a Youtube video. That video can be seen at https://youtube.com/watch?v-uF0rv5XN07A.

Evaluation process

Each school awarded the Tennessee STEM School Designation was evaluated through a rigorous application process including a self-evaluation, interviews, and hosting site visits with the Tennessee STEM Designation review team. The designation rubric included five focus areas: infrastructure, curriculum and instruction, professional development, achievement, and community and post-secondary partnerships.

“It’s like jumping hurdles ... you do the things they ask you to do, and you get the chance to go through the next hurdle,” Howell said of the STEM application process.

As part of the evaluation process, students were charged with putting together presentations on what they were learning and how it would be useful in future careers.

“It was a matter of figuring out what that was going to look like at our school and how we were going to best use our resources to incorporate that and make it another avenue for our students at Portland East to use that while they’re doing their learning,” Howell said.

For example, Portland East students partnered with volunteers from the Portland Chamber of Commerce on what Combs called a reality check.

“The kids were given a career and had to budget and make life choices off that,” Combs said. “It really is giving them chances, activities and projects that they can take what they’ve learned in the classroom and put it to good use.”

Other examples Combs cited were a non-profit created by students to help raise money to be donated to people in need and a thrift store opened in the school building itself to benefit students in need.

“We had another student who was trying to design a trash pickup truck that could also handle recycling,” Combs said. “It’s real-world applications that in a normal math or English class you just don’t have time to do stuff like that.”

Howell added, “We did a lot with science with our gardening, technology with our robotics. We had a lot of opportunity to do a lot of different things and show how it helped our students increase their learning.”

Portland East also created a team of 14 STEM ambassador students who met with the evaluators and told how STEM played a role in their education. Those students were Kelsie Wims, Maddie Wallace, Hunter Whittemore, Skylar Bottorff, Haley Tate, Alyssa Dean, Lily Souza, Marko Carrasquillo, Alex Swift, Tricia Totty, Alex Cortez, Mia Acosta, Micah Kibbey and Nathan Walker.

“They were chosen because they were students their teachers felt would be good representatives of the projects they do,” Combs said of the student ambassadors. “They gave the evaluators tours and talked about our school. They were such a great addition.”

Brandi Stroecker, the director of the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, added, “Schools that earn STEM Designation incorporate strong STEM teaching and learning experiences that rest on inquiry, technology integration, work-based learning, and project/problem-based learning strategies tied to the world around us. Each school has a unique STEM program, yet incorporates a similar approach by providing diverse, transdisciplinary teaching practices where students become the drivers of their learning. TSIN appreciates the hard work and passion that each STEM-designated school pours into their educational community. These schools consistently provide students with learning experiences that shape their aspirations for the future.”

Reach Chris Gregory at 615-374-3556 or cgregory@hartsvillevidette.com.

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Schools receiving Tennessee STEM School Designation for 2020

· Ashland City Elementary School, Cheatham County Schools

· Bradley Academy-An Arts Integrated School (grades K-6), Murfreesboro City Schools

· Cleveland High School, Cleveland City Schools

· Erma Siegel Elementary School, Murfreesboro City Schools

· Harrison Elementary School, Hamilton County Schools

· Hixson Middle School, Hamilton County Schools

· Kenwood High School, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System

· Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) (9-12), Shelby County Schools

· Midway Middle School, Roane County School District

· Mount Pleasant Elementary School, Maury County Public Schools

· Mount Pleasant High School, Maury County Public Schools

· Mount Pleasant Middle School, Maury County Public Schools

· Normal Park Museum Magnet (PK-8), Hamilton County Schools

· Peabody High School, Trenton Special School District

· Petros-Joyner Elementary School, Morgan County Schools

· Pope John Paul II High School, Private

· Portland East Middle School, Sumner County Schools

· Randolph Howell Elementary, Maury County Public Schools

· Red Bank Elementary School, Hamilton County Schools

· Red Bank High School, Hamilton County Schools

· Sequoyah High School, Monroe County Schools

· Waterville Elementary School, Bradley County Schools

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