(TNS) — Decatur City Schools has created what school leaders call a one-of-a-kind playground for teachers at Oak Park Elementary.
Spark Lab is a place where teachers go for professional development in a game-like environment and learn the most innovative techniques to teach science, technology, engineering and math-based education.
DCS technology coach Faith Plunkett came up with the idea after she was asked at a conference in Florence about what she would change to make education better.
“I was in the area of professional development, and I wanted something that would personalize learning for teachers because when they don’t have that passion, students suffer,” she said.
So far, about 200 of the district’s almost 600 teachers have received professional development at the lab and about 100 students have trained in the center.
“This is a game-changer for our teachers and students,” Oak Park Elementary Principal Teddi Jackson said. “It’s an interactive place for teachers and students, and they love it.”
Jackson said she’s not aware of any other school district with a professional development site for teachers where they can work at their own pace and not feel embarrassed because they don’t know something.
To help school leaders understand what teachers are learning, Plunkett and DCS supervisor of technology Emily Elam created a virtual escape room Tuesday for school board members and Superintendent Michael Douglas.
The two created a series of STEM stations and divided people at the meeting into teams. To answer the questions at each station, the groups had to work as a team and use innovative ways to come up with answers to receive letters spelling out the password allowing them to escape.
“It’s awesome to have this type of technology and training right here in our district,” said school board Vice President Donnie Lane.
Douglas said teachers have seven state-required work days, and the majority of them are usually used for professional development. Because technology is more integrated into the curriculum, he said it’s important that teachers understand how to use it.
“The sooner we can get our kids exposed to science, technology, engineering and math the better they will be,” he said.
Chestnut Grove Elementary Principal Luke Bergeson already has kindergarten students doing hands-on STEM projects. But to continue this, he said, teachers will need ongoing professional development like what’s available in the Spark Lab.
Elam said technology is a tool for teachers and a pathway to innovation so they don’t get stuck in what they are doing.
“By having this lab, we’re working to make it less intimidating,” she said.
Frances Nungester Principal Shannon McCaskey said she was so impressed with what the lab offers that she scheduled her faculty meeting at the facility earlier this month.
“It’s phenomenal what they offer, and my faculty needed the training,” she said.
McCaskey said her school has two STEM teachers, a robotics team, a coding component for its curriculum and three GEMS Clubs that focus on girls who are interested in engineering, math and science.
She said teachers were interested in all the programs, but needed professional development, which they got at the Spark Lab.
“This is all at our fingertips,” McCaskey said. “It’s really amazing at everything that’s in this small room.”
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