500 Metro Atlanta Teachers Dive In to Learning at CCSD STEMapalooza

Teachers play with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) tools set up during the Cobb County School District’s STEMapalooza at Kennesaw Mountain High School June 20.

While students slept late, scampered to the pool and played at camp, their teachers spent three days of summer vacation filling classroom seats at Kennesaw Mountain High School.

About 500 teachers from across the metro Atlanta area designed and launched rockets, played with Sphero robots, 3D doodler pens and other engineering gadgets. They listened as fellow educators explained how to get started with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lessons. They learned about coding activities with Lego Education, how to take STEM field trips or add STEM into their school’s after school program. The teachers took notes as their colleagues gave tips on how to incorporate STEM lessons with shoestring budgets.

The teachers turned into students during the Cobb County School District’s second annual STEMapalooza June 20-22.

“Teachers are always learning,” said Dr. Sally Creel, CCSD Supervisor of STEM and Innovation and STEMapalooza organizer. “They recognize that it is important for them to keep learning and growing so they can do a better job for their kids. They are [at STEMapalooza] because they want to do something new and exciting for their kids.”

Versus reading about it online or in a catalog, the three-day conference allowed teachers to see, in-person, what STEM looks like in the classroom.

In one exhibit, teachers stepped through a door into an underwater classroom. A sculpted jellyfish and other sea creatures made from recycled trash floated above. Blue paper enclosed the walls as soft fabric created waves overhead. Teachers ducked to avoid the suspended sea turtle as they admired and snapped photos of the table of color-crafted sea anemones. As they flowed in and out of the room, teachers stopped to chat with the visionary behind the Dodgen Middle School STEM project, Joan Weatherford.

“This brings awareness to the Trash Islands that exist in all of our major oceans,” the Dodgen art teacher explained. “The students took recycled products and created underwater animals. We had 15 QR codes in the hallway, so you can come up and scan to learn different facts about Trash Island, what people are doing about it, and what you can do to stop it from getting larger.”

Weatherford asked Dodgen teachers of other subjects to incorporate a lesson that relates to the underwater classroom art project like oceanography or the history of Georgia’s shoreline. She said the exhibit shows how easy it can be to pull all the academic subjects and the arts together to explore one topic.

The CCSD STEM team wanted to provide teachers who attended STEMapalooza with fresh ideas and best practices from across the state, not just the District. So they tapped a variety of other STEM schools from Alpharetta to Savannah to attend the conference and tell their school’s STEM story.

For example, Amana Academy from Alpharetta showed their models on how they blend science and math curriculum in the same classroom. A representative from the Savannah STEM Academy talked to school administrators in attendance about how to arrange STEM in the school building.

“He also talked to teachers about how his teachers plan, how they collaborate and what that collaboration looks like,” said Dr. Creel.

A physics teacher from another Savannah school gave the STEM educators a lesson on building and launching handmade rockets. During the conference session, the teachers built rockets and tested how far they could fly.

Companies from as far away as Ohio set up exhibits at the conference so the teachers could chat with representatives about new opportunities available for STEM classrooms. Last year, STEMapalooza featured 15 exhibits. This year, the number jumped to about 35.

“It is all about letting teachers network and have fun with STEM,” added Dr. Creel. “This starts getting their ideas to flow, and they will be thinking about it over the summer. It will be exciting to see what ideas come out of the conference.”

The 2016 STEMapalooza sparked Baker Elementary School’s pursuit of a zSpace STEM lab after school staff saw a demonstration of the virtual classroom at last year’s conference.

STEMapalooza also featured a STEM playground where teachers got hands-on with different STEM-related gizmos like Sphero robots and engineering games. This allowed teachers to test products before they spent their limited STEM budgets on something that might not benefit their students.

“Some of the items we have available for checkout through Cobb Schools,” Dr. Creel added.

Media Specialist Cara Harpin attended STEMapalooza to gather ideas on how to make the McClure Middle School media center a place that supports STEM.

“I love that they have the [STEM playground] set up, so I can play with some of the tools,” Harpin said.

During one of the conference sessions, Harpin picked up an STEM idea involving holograms but planned to tweak it some to make it more of a problem-solving lesson.

“I’m really excited about new ideas,” Harpin added. “I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. I’m excited to bring ideas back to the teachers at my school.”

Harpin didn’t attend the event last year, but signed up this year after seeing the enticing and fun social media campaign that promoted this year’s conference. She wasn’t alone. Attendance by Cobb teachers almost tripled from last year. About 400 CCSD teachers turned out this year.

The conference wasn’t all note-taking. The teachers enjoyed snow cones, free lunch, and door prizes too, partially due to an increase in sponsorship.

“The Cobb Schools Foundation has been an amazing partner helping us organize this event,” said Dr. Creel. “They helped us network with other companies and sponsors.”

However, the snow cones are not the main reason why more teachers may give up their free time to attend the conference next year.

“They are learning from one another,” said Dr. Creel. “They are networking with each other, and they are getting inspired.”