What do a nature park, wetlands, Hamilton County Schools eLabs, and outdoor learning space all have in common? They are just some of the many exciting features of innovative learning and community collaboration to take place at Harrison Elementary School's new STEAM campus.
Set to debut the building in early January, the new HES STEAM location has been quite the journey in the making. Built in 1939, the original HES infrastructure was not up to par with where it should be, and former principal Wendy Jung said they were determined to find a new and improved learning facility for students. Jung also shared that with the new facility, came the vision of starting an initiative to empower children. "Children want to be empowered and want to be in charge of their learning," stated Jung, who currently advises and supports the school and its coaches in formulating and achieving the school's STEAM vision. Part of that vision includes children embracing their individual learning journey, which includes becoming immersed in their own community. "Our vision is to give students the opportunity to be problem solvers and vital community members," shared Jung. "We want kids so invested in their community that they speak for the community."
HES believes in the four C’s of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity, which were taken into consideration to meet the needs of all learners when planning out each space in the new building. The goal was to allow each student to feel empowered to fully maximize their learning abilities. "What’s exciting about being able to have a new facility at the same time you have a new vision journey for students is that everything in the building was selected to support that vision and that work," shared Jung. One example includes combining a traditional art lab and traditional science lab into a makers space. One side of the new STEAM media center includes an industrial sink and computer science lab with standing desk stations. The other is the new eLab. "What I’m most excited about with our STEAM journey is a unified space, including a makers space for our eLab to be setup," shared HES interim principal Jennifer Brownlee. Having this space for students to learn, create, and bring their projects to life through the eLab are all factors many teachers are looking forward to next year. Current students will have ownership over what that new space looks like, including decision-making power about what surrounds them every day.
The new STEAM building site is located by the industrial park on Ferdinand Piech Way and sits in close proximity to a giant solar field, a wetlands, nature park, Volkswagen Chattanooga, and TDOT. With a site situated within incredible partnership opportunities, Jung said they couldn't have picked a better place for their school to be built. Organizations like Public Education Foundation, WaterWays, VW Chattanooga, Enterprise South Nature Park, and TDOT have all been extremely supportive partners with HES to help their new learning community vision flourish. TDOT helped support tool training stations, including power tools, story box frames, and storybook trails. HES Academic STEAM Coach and PEF STEM Fellow alumnae, Katie Neil, is organizing tool training stations so that students can get certified for the use of tools. TDOT also helped support every student one-to-one to ensure safety. Before even receiving their eLab, the school certified approximately 220 students last year on the use of tools. With help from their community partnerships, Jung emphasized how small ideas had the ability to be transformed into huge, impactful realities.
The wetlands at Enterprise South Nature Park includes an amphitheater and outdoor learning classrooms for students to enhance their problem-based learning. The outdoor classroom area is also accessible for students and adults with disabilities, including the creation of rope handrails and mulch pathways. "The site is located off of an old service road, so that students who face physical limitations can be driven off to the site and can participate fully in the activities," shared Brownlee. The vision with the nature park as a community partner is that the area continues to expand, with envisioning a trail that encompasses the entire wetland with several observation platforms. "I could see us spending entire days out there," Brownlee said. Next steps include working with TDOT to build a land bridge from the campus to the equestrian trail so students can easily access the outdoor space. Community PBLs have also played a fundamental role in their overall STEAM vision, and Enterprise South Nature Park collaborates with the school on park problems. Teachers think about how these problems can tie into what students are doing in the classroom and how they can help. "We focus on those outside connections, and PEF already helped out with this a lot through STEM Fellows," said Neil. "The authenticity piece is what we strive for with our students - that iterative thinking 'yeah it didn’t work, but what can we do differently?'"
Public Education Foundation's STEM Fellows program, led by PEF Innovation Hub's Michael Stone and Cliff Brittingham, played an integral role in supporting HES on their STEAM journey. HES staff dedicated countless hours, with support from the PEF STEM Fellows program, to apply for TN STEM designated school. Their hard work paid off when they, along with four other Hamilton County Schools, were awarded Tennessee STEM School Designation 2020. This honorable title recognizes innovative schools for their commitment to promoting and integrating STEM/STEAM learning for all students that prepare them for post-secondary college and career success. Schools awarded STEM Designation were evaluated through an intense application process including interviews, a self-evaluation, and hosting site visits with the TN STEM Designation review team. Along with Katie Neil, HES STEM Fellows core include Stephanie Elgin, Sunni Hart, and Mendi Catlett. Catlett and Hart were part of the cohort 8.0 fellowship last year when their school was recognized as a TN STEM Designation recipient. "STEM Fellows was incredibly valuable during the designation process," shared Catlett. "STEM Fellows brought in experts that assisted us in the process and connected us to other schools that we could collaborate with during the process." Sunni Hart also shared how STEM Fellows helped prepare them in achieving STEM Designation. "Since many of the schools involved in the cohort were going through the TN STEM Designation process, it helped me understand what the state was looking for and how to prepare students for success in STEM," shared Hart. "We were able to ask questions and get a clear understanding of the expectations for STEM Designation, and embed practices that transform how students engage in learning." Hart revealed how STEM Fellows also exposed her to different types of technologies, allowing her to visualize what STEM looks in other classrooms and how she could integrate it into her classroom for her own students' learning.
Neil continued to reflect on her STEM Fellows experience, sharing that the program helped bring their school's STEAM vision to life. A visit to STEM School Chattanooga planted a seed for their overall vision. Although STEM School Chattanooga is designed for high school students, Neil was inspired with an innovative vision for elementary students at HES. "We wanted our students to have this authenticity and ownership over their learning," shared Neil. Shortly after a visit to the STEM School, Neil heard about STEM Fellows. "I knew a few people who had gone through the program," she shared. "They kept telling me, it’s not what you think it is – it’s so much more. Someone described it to me as it supports you by helping you rise above perceived barriers – and that’s exactly what it did." The STEM Fellows at HES credit the program for helping them make connections with educators who also shared innovative learning ideas, including taking a deep dive at problem-based learning as an educational strategy and deciphering what that looks like in the real world. One of the professional development opportunities during the fellowship involved touring VW Chattanooga's manufacturing plant, allowing the fellows to discover how STEAM content they're teaching in the classroom can apply not just to how students think, but also to what kind of careers they can have. "That was a grounding moment for me," said Neil. "Often times in education we try to simulate the real world for them in the classroom, and this was more than that. This was the clear connection between the two. They don’t have to wait to be community members – they already are. STEM Fellows kept that at the heart of everything they did. It’s authentic now for students. It’s not just to prepare them for later."
STEM Fellow , Stephanie Elgin, echoed how important the role networking played during her time in the program. "STEM Fellows biggest impact on me was the connections I made with other teachers who teach outside the box. Many times, teachers only get to see what is happening in their own classroom or school. STEM Fellows allowed me to expand my network, but beyond that I was able to see what other STEM professionals experience in their jobs," said Elgin.
Through community partners, the HES team is excited to unveil what they have worked so hard to achieve and improve for students at Harrison Elementary. Jung shared how being a member of Chattanooga 2.0's innovation team and having the opportunity to meet with innovators really helped boost her STEAM journey. She also thanks PEF's Michael Stone for supporting her vision. "Anytime you engage with people who are thinking outside the box and catalyzing positive transformation, you naturally gain new insight that impacts how you lead," shared Jung. "I really appreciate all those interactions because they made us reimagine what was possible for our students and how to bring those possibilities into reality." She also emphasized the need to identify people who aren't afraid to fail, and that for growth, you have to take risk and veer outside your comfort zone - a large part of what STEM Fellows encompasses. "We believe in growth for everybody in our school – not just the children but the staff and the community. I think when you go and you learn deeply about your community, you suddenly see that cross-section of mission and vision, and that’s where the authentic projects come from."
Although both STEAM nights originally scheduled for the fall had to be postponed, HES looks forward to celebrating their new space with the community soon and for everyone to see the vision for themselves of what will become an incredible learning space. Due to COVID-19 precautions, Jung shared they could possibly see hosting a virtual tour of the building for parents and community members, including demonstrations in the eLab and activities people could participate in virtually.
Whether in person or virtual, we look forward to the debut of the new HES STEAM campus, and we can't wait to see the collaboration between students and community partners continue to unfold and thrive. HES is well on their way to continue promoting their vision of empowering students, staff, families, and the community!
View additional quote-worthy feedback from HES STEM Fellow alums here:
Earlier this year, the PEF Innovation Hub team worked on capturing Harrison Elementary's STEAM story in preparation for TN STEM Designation. View the pamphlet below to read more.
*Photos contributed by Katie Neil / Harrison Elementary School.