VW eLab & STEM Fellows Spotlight: Jennifer Ellis, Hixson Middle School
Amusement park researching, designing, building, and implementation has been keeping eighth grade students busy recently in the Hixson Middle School (HMS) Volkswagen eLab. Jennifer Ellis is HMS's VW eLab specialist this year, and taught mathematics at HMS for seven years prior to that. Although she has only been in the VW eLab position a few months, she is already enjoying many aspects of the role. “The most rewarding part of being the VW eLab specialist is getting to share new experiences with the students, while giving them the opportunity to test their ideas and create models that are their own designs,” shared Ellis. Similarly, her favorite part when teaching math was getting to participate in the hands-on building that applied math skills. "These students have so many great ideas, and they have such grand designs and expectations.” Ellis emphasized that although some of the students' initial ideas don't work right away, they understand they may have to undergo several iterations before they're satisfied with the outcome of a project. She shared that it's all about the learning process that occurs along the way.
Ellis also has aspirations to join forces with other teachers in this space. “The teachers have been really excited about being able to collaborate," shared Ellis, "and when we can utilize some of the equipment for other classes, I’m all for it.” HMS recently hosted their Humanities Night, which allowed students the opportunity to use the VW eLab to create stickers, buttons, and signs for the event. Ellis also plans to collaborate with language arts teachers in the future. “With sixth grade students, I’m going to try to incorporate something with language arts next semester, so we’re going to see how that works with everyone’s schedule. I’m glad my principal and our academic coach gave me the chance to go into this role. They’ve been very supportive of my ideas or suggestions. ”
With sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in her classroom, Ellis has the opportunity to teach a variety of levels and is enjoying getting the chance to witness how students react to what they're learning. “The students genuinely are excited to create,” shared Ellis. All grades start out with learning the basics of the VW eLab equipment. Currently, eighth grade students have been working on building an amusement park ride and roller coasters for the past couple of weeks. Eighth grade students Nevaeh Millsaps and Jeffrey Deason shared their favorite part of the assignment has been getting to build it out, as well as learning more about measurements along the way. The first week of research and brainstorming ideas about which types of rides they want to create involves everything from deciding what their theme is to what the physics is behind the idea. “Planning out what we want to do helps us out a lot in the long run,” shared eighth grade student, Aldo Garcia. From there, the students work on developing their design, asking feedback from other students, and starting to create their model. “Some of the students had a clear vision right away, and some of them have changed their ideas five or six times,” shared Ellis.
Having taught math in the past, Ellis already has a great handle on math skills that her students need to improve upon most in real-life application. “It’s a good way for me to incorporate some of those skills, especially the ones that, as a whole, our state tends to struggle with, which is measurements & statistics,” shared Ellis. “We test our prototypes, and as we’re building, we’re measuring and we’re using those calculations and skills.”
Ellis is also part of this year’s PEF STEM Fellows cohort. When asked what she’s learning in the program that's beneficial to her teaching, Ellis shared that the structure of the problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum has been a very helpful guide. “We’ve been able to examine PBLs, walk through them step by step, and talk with teachers from other schools in different grade levels about what works or doesn’t work for them,” she shared. A few other opportunities this year's STEM Fellows have had the chance to partake in include touring STEM School Chattanooga and walking through the STEM designation process, visiting the UTC Challenger Center and learning more about how VR and other learning technologies can play into a day-to-day class, and getting a behind-the-scenes view of the Tennessee Aquarium. "These PD’s make you feel more comfortable in the classroom and make you realize that STEM isn’t something that’s scary and PBLs aren’t something you should run away from – you can start small and add to it.” Ellis also emphasized the process of learning how to use different technologies, like Micro:Bits, and how having the ability to borrow them for free from the PEF Tech Lending Library is an added bonus. Moving forward in STEM Fellows, Ellis hopes to continue conversations surrounding STEM with other teachers through the STEM Fellows Alumni Network. “I’ve really enjoyed getting the opportunity to branch out, meet new people and make more connections,” she shared. “Sometimes the best ideas are the ones you didn’t have, but that you learned from someone else.”
We're looking forward to keeping up with what students are learning and creating in the HMS VW eLab, as well as future collaborations between Ellis and other HMS teachers. To view more pictures from her eighth grade VW eLab class, keep scrolling!