Branching Out From STEM: How Students Are Finding Their Own Path

Oak Ridge Schools help students find their own paths through classwork and beyond.

By
Laura Hill
On Monday, July 22, 2019 - 17:02
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The acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) is omnipresent these days in education, as schools scramble to prepare students for work in an increasingly high-tech world. But Oak Ridge Schools (ORS) have redefined the term: Students and Teachers Energizing Minds.

Guided by that overarching educational approach, Oak Ridge Schools strive to give students world-class preparation for whatever future they choose, whether that is welding, health care, broadcasting, the military or an advanced liberal arts degree. 

“We are so comprehensive in this district that if a kid wants to take numerous AP courses he can do it, and if he feels more like machining, automotive or the military, he can do it. It’s what sets our district apart,” says Dr. Bruce Borchers, superintendent of the Oak Ridge Schools, whose own son trained to be a professional welder at Oak Ridge High School. “We’ve got something for everybody and we want you to be successful at whatever you want to be.”

Widening their focus beyond just science, technology, engineering and math, ORS instills in kids the “Four C’s,” collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking — skills that not only help students succeed in school but are traits employers look for. 

Seven Keys Shaping Education

From a child’s first days in the school system, the path is guided by the commitment of ORS and community stakeholders to seven keys that will shape her education through high school, leaving the student with skills that will help ensure success in whatever field he or she chooses. The first three keys emphasize mastery of math and reading in elementary and middle school. The fourth key aims to help eighth-graders meet their goals on the Aspire test. Keys five through seven focus on high schoolers preparing for college and careers, offering every student help with ACT prep and financial literacy. Finally, every student may graduate with some type of post-secondary credential, whether AP courses, industry certifications, dual enrollment credits or military preparedness.

ORS, using a hands-on, holistic approach to STEM education, gives students wide ranging experiences with real-world, even global, issues, broadening their view of the world and sharpening vital skills. They may see ways to connect disciplines, such as digital arts with welding, math and music, or health sciences with advanced manufacturing. As they progress through school, the world of possibilities for their futures opens up, as they pursue AP coursework, college credit in dual enrollment programs, technical training and workplace experience. An amazing 92.3 percent of graduating seniors in 2018 had acquired some form of postgraduate experience or certification.

“Our employers and the skills of the future really come back to the four Cs,” Borchers says. “Employers no longer need employees to just remember key data points. They need someone who can problem solve, who can work with co-workers.”

This approach has earned ORS recognition as the first AdvancED STEM school system in the state – and only the second in the world, described by AdvancED, an accreditation organization, as “a mark of distinction and excellence” in STEM education. 

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Courtesy of ORAU

Complementing ORS programs, Oak Ridge Associated Universities’ K-12 STEM Education program offers students and teachers the vast resources of its labs, affiliated universities and experts in many fields. Teachers may take summer classes such as Colorful and Sweet Chemistry, Project Wet, and Virtual Reality in the Classroom, where they can learn new techniques and keep current with technological innovation. High school students can attend the ARC-ORNL Summer Math-Science-Technology Institute, where they can work directly with scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratories.Middle schoolers may attend summer classes, where they work with outstanding teachers to find solutions for real-life problems.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Hill is a former reporter/columnist for the Tennessean and a contributor to Journal Communications publications since 1996.