Clemson faculty help shape curriculum at Greenville’s first STEAM middle school
Two groups of middle school students hover in the clean, industrial hallway, throwing paper airplanes. A couple of classmates sit nearby, working on laptops. The rest are doing group work in the classroom.
Their teacher wanders among the groups, checking in, giving feedback.
Think no learning could possibly be going on in the seemingly chaotic scene? Think again.
Watching closely, the groups throwing airplanes seem to be measuring how far each plane is traveling. But each group is doing it differently.
A young boy in group A watches group B, then turns to his group and says that the other group’s results aren’t going to be consistent. They’re measuring using their feet, which are different sizes. Group B had chosen to measure using a constant — the floor tiles.
The school — Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School — is the first project-based, science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) middle school in Greenville County. And Clemson is a part of it, working with the school’s leaders to support current teachers and determine new ways to train future teachers.
“We were intrigued by the idea of being asked to sit at the table before there were any blueprints. So we asked ourselves, ‘What could we bring to the table?’” said Suzanne Rosenblith, chair of the teacher education faculty at Clemson’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education.
Today, walking down the hallways, one almost can’t tell it’s a school. Everything is very cool, industrial and open. There are flexible spaces outside the classrooms. Classrooms have two hallway doors — one traditional, one garage door — which allow teachers to use the flexible space more easily.
Students are given a laptop at the beginning of the year, textbooks are loaded onto the computer, and some printed textbooks are sent home where they will stay until summer.
Fisher Program Director Matt Critell draws a parallel to the 21st-century workplace experience and how groups of professionals have to work together, separately and even independently, to make a project or a company flourish.
“This style of learning is really more developmentally appropriate at this age because they tend to be more fidgety in middle school,” he said. “The activities given, the ability to get up and move to a different space to work helps with their focus.”
Clemson’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education has been involved in the planning of this middle school since the very beginning.
From helping develop the plans for the school building to building the curriculum, Clemson faculty members brought their expertise and research in the field to the planning table. Now, faculty anticipate their work at Fisher will inform a larger effort of using STEAM concepts to combat teacher attrition, reignite student interest in learning and allow teachers to guide project-based learning, which research shows creates achievement gains in students.
Fisher’s curriculum is based on an inquiry and project-based learning model, and the classes are taught in a flexible, block-scheduling model. Through projects, students will learn academic content and practice skills such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking.
“We really want these students to experience the arts, robotics, computer technology, broadcast journalism,” said Cassie Quigley, assistant professor of science education. And she and other educators want them to be able to tie those ideas together to create a more well-rounded and prepared student.
A Clemson faculty in residence has an office in the school. This semester Dani Herro, assistant professor of digital media and learning, is providing professional development and support for teachers based on their needs. So far she and the teachers have brainstormed ideas, planned units and even co-taught integrated digital media lessons.
As much as Clemson is supporting this school, being a part of the project and being allowed to be so intricately involved in the day-to-day function of a middle school classroom brings just as much to Clemson professors.
“It gives the School of Education a better understanding of what the needs of a school are — in a natural setting,” Herro said.
Classroom settings change. And Clemson has to be ready to teach its students — the future teachers — how to adapt and how to teach in various school settings.
“We see the importance of creativity in the classroom and the integration of curriculum,” said Herro. “So how do we at Clemson change our focus and how do we teach these techniques to our students?”