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Banding Together for Better Innovation

A Small Tennessee Public School District Leverages Community Partnerships to Launch the Nation’s First STEAM Campus.

Mt. Pleasant High School
It’s hard not to get jazzed about what’s happening with public education in Maury County, Tenn.
On the surface, three of the schools in the Maury County Public Schools district — Mt. Pleasant Elementary, Mt. Pleasant Middle and Mt. Pleasant High — have come together to create the country’s first K-12 STEAM campus, known as the Mt. Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone.

Behind the scenes, however, something far more enthralling is underway. Instead of trying to engineer change on their own, district administrators and individual school principals embrace community partnerships as a conduit for innovation. To date, these programs have involved an international pharmaceutical company, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), dual enrollment at a local university and more. According to district officials, the partnerships have brought in more than $1 million in capital resources and cash this year alone, with more partnerships on the horizon.

The results of this commitment to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics are plentiful and omnipresent. Students score better on tests and they take pride in the work they do. Educators are excited, too, and say they can do more with less, and that students are engaged from the moment they enter class until the moment they leave.

“We have managed in a very short time to completely transform the way we approach teaching STEM and STEAM,” says Dr. Ryan Jackson, executive lead principal of the Mt. Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone. “We’re now incubating in our kids a creator’s mindset from the very beginning.”

The first big splash in STEAM curriculum in Maury County took place at Mount Pleasant High School during the 2016-2017 school year.

The project comprised two separate “escape rooms,” which are physical games where players are locked in a room and must solve puzzles and riddles within a set time limit to escape. Escape rooms have become an increasingly popular form of entertainment, particularly for groups of teenagers.

Both escape rooms at Maury emphasized lessons on circuitry and pressure sensors, and incorporated recycled materials from an old storage room and other places around the school. One of the rooms, which sported a theme from the movie, “Con Air,” even necessitated students learn new jobs, doing everything from welding to painting murals on the inside walls.

All told, more than 150 students participated in the project.

The rooms opened in spring 2017 and the school dubbed the challenge of solving them, “Escape the Mount,” a direct reference to the high school’s nickname. Over the course of a few months, more than 1,000 people ran the rooms, including students, parents and members of the community. At one point, the escape rooms even had their own hashtag on Twitter: #escapethemount.

“So many students took pride in what they had built; the turnout was amazing,” Jackson says. “This project was the thing that made people stop and realize, ‘Learning can be fun.’”

As students were preparing to Escape the Mount, Jackson and colleagues sought other opportunities to bring students and community members together to advance the district’s curriculum. The next big step forward: A drone program that was part of the Lexus Eco Challenge — a contest sponsored by the car manufacturer.

Mt. Pleasant’s submission effort was the brainchild of Armin Begtrup, Mt. Pleasant High School’s mechatronics instructor. The Lexus challenge tasked students with solving an environmental problem, and Begtrup helped them actualize a plan to build amphibious drones that could collect water samples from a nearby park and test them for the Zika virus. Within weeks from brainstorming a solution to the problem, the students were collecting data.

The drones garnered headlines in local press, and representatives from pharmaceutical giant Sanofi — which had backed a foundation involved in cleaning up the park — saw the coverage and reached out to become a partner in the endeavor. Ultimately, the Sanofi Foundation for North America donated $5,000 to support mechatronics research projects taking place at the high school.

“We saw this as a great opportunity to support the Mt. Pleasant community,” says Peter Lalli, interim head of the Sanofi North America Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) division. “The focus on community and STEM education — as well as its connection to health and environment — ties perfectly into our CSR strategy.”

Begtrup also engineered another partnership — this one with researchers from NASA — that will put Mt. Pleasant at the forefront of a program through which students will create materials used on the International Space Station.

Specifically, students are helping create space-age material for a panel that will house electrical equipment and be part of a larger system on the space station. Begtrup says that as part of the curriculum, Mt. Pleasant students have studied new welding techniques, met with mechanical engineers in the graduate program at Vanderbilt University and melded materials together in newfangled ways.

Dr. Chris Marczak, superintendent of schools for Maury County, says this type of firsthand experience on a project that could end up in space is the kind of opportunity students will remember for life.
“How many high school students get to say they worked on a project with NASA?” Marczak says. “All of this is pretty special, if you ask me.”

Marczak also notes that these efforts align with the Maury County Public Schools Keys to College and Career Readiness, which were created in 2015 (see sidebar).

More partnership-driven STEAM innovations in Maury County are on the way. According to Jackson, during the 2016-2017 school year, Mt. Pleasant High School received a $500,000 grant from Clarcor, a local filtration firm that subsequently was bought by aerospace company Parker Hannifin. That money will fund an Innovation Lab, which is currently under construction and will sit in the space formerly occupied by the escape rooms.

Another developing partnership features Moore College of Design, and aims to have Mt. Pleasant students design and construct outfits for the hometown theater department, as well as for theater departments at other schools.

The school system also partners with the Maury County Chamber and Economic Alliance on the Grow Maury Initiative, a public/private effort to unite the community toward educational achievement and workforce development. The initiative brings education and business leaders to the area to discuss ways to empower students and rally the community behind academic growth.

Says Jackson: “The new way of thinking around here is that purpose equals power.”