November 1st, 2013

Nayan Malhotra, 7th Grade

How does wind work? What does skin do to protect us? What is an “intelligent home”? Students in second through eighth grades at Jackson Academy will not only ask these type questions, they will answer them in tangible ways through experiences in three new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) labs installed this summer. The labs, coupled with a supporting, robust curriculum, will expose students to science, math, and other subjects, such as robotics engineering, in ways that are fun and engaging. STEM education helps build the life skills necessary for success in the 21st century.

“Exploration in STEM curriculum enables students to make sense of the math and science they previously had learned in isolation. In STEM, the subjects are brought together, often through the use of technology, in hands-on, real-world applications that show students how and why things work,” said Pat Taylor, headmaster. “STEM is a course where the proverbial light bulb comes on in the minds of most students.”

In STEM labs, students experience subjects by “doing,” which increases understanding and retention of core academic concepts. “We are seeing a great deal of excitement as students get to touch the instruments and models used in STEM labs,” said Matt Morgan, Middle School dean. “Students’ cognition and sensory skills are engaged through the STEM experience, enabling students to connect core content knowledge with tactile experience and learn collaboration and critical thinking along the way.” The kinesthetic experiences ignite the interest of students, helping them connect concepts to real world application.

Ready for Take-Off

In STEM Missions Lab, second through fourth grade students work in teams of four following a NASA crew model on topics such as space, electricity, skyscrapers, rocks and rockets. Serving as commander, materials specialist, information specialist or communication specialist, students develop skills of communication and collaboration while observing how their contributions affect the results of the entire team.

“It really has been a huge hit with the kids-and I’m having a blast as well!” said Cliff Powers, Lower School STEM instructor and 21st century learning specialist. “The STEM lab is incredibly stimulating, interactive and engaging.”

Yes, It Is Rocket Science

Understanding rocket science is the focus of one of the hands-on workstations in the Middle School STEM lab. Fifth grade students make use of twelve workstations that illuminate subjects through explorations on aquaculture, climate and biomes, and even garbology. Sixth grade students experience twelve workstations that include heart fitness, carbon footprint, and plastics and polymers. Seventh and eighth grade curriculum includes microbiology, applied physics and robotic engineering also in twelve separate stations.

“By implementing Pitsco Education’s STEM programs that have been used in more than 5,000 labs across the country, Jackson Academy is positioning itself as a leader in STEM education in the state of Mississippi,” said Peter Jernberg, president. “Lower and middle level students will become intimately familiar with the science and math behind subjects such as rocketry, applied physics, alternative energy, chemical reactions and simple machines. Students’ 21st century skills of critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration will be well established, and they will be eager to learn these subjects more deeply when they enter upper school.”

Immersion and Self-Directed Learning

“The Pitsco Education STEM labs are unlike any other classroom on campus. First of all, the level of activity, interaction, and cooperative learning is at an all-time high,” said Katie Chustz, seventh grade science teacher. “Students work in small groups to share knowledge and ideas as they problem solve and conduct experiments to learn how the academic concepts they’ve been taught in math and science classrooms apply in the real world. The projects are so engaging and meaningful that students often don’t realize they are learning.”

In seventh grade science, for example, students work in teams of two. Each workstation offers a different learning module such as alternative energy, oceanography or forensic science. Two students immersed in the subject matter complete one module in seven class meetings. During their time together, the pair listens to web-based interactive curriculum, researches information, performs experiments and applies the knowledge learned through student portfolio assessments of gathered data and examples of mastered content. In the dynamic earth module, for example, students examine how life is possible on Earth, use dimensional analysis, create scale models of Earth, interpret topographic maps and study the theory of plate tectonics.

When a question arises beyond students’ capabilities, the teacher guides students to the next step. “STEM education definitely requires teachers to change the way they deliver subject content,” says Barbara Neely, science department chair and a leader in developing STEM education at JA. “No longer can a teacher be ‘a sage upon a stage’ and depend on students to learn solely from lectures. STEM teachers are facilitators. They help students learn by guiding and questioning. Much of the responsibility for learning is placed on the student. Not only must STEM teachers be knowledgeable in the science and math content, they must also be confident in the use of technology and the engineering processes.”

Pitsco Education developed the STEM labs and curriculum. After installation, Jackson Academy faculty members received professional development, led by Pitsco trainers, to become familiar with the lab modules and the accompanying curriculum.

“Jackson Academy is taking STEM education seriously by implementing Pitsco Education solutions at multiple grade levels,” said Pitsco Education President Lisa Paterni. “Students work together in a real-world lab setting to apply the concepts they learn individually in science, math and other subject areas. We are pleased to join forces with such a forward-thinking school that seeks to instill in its students 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and problem solving.”

New Ways to Prepare for the Future

Students can expect an entirely new and exciting way of learning science. “They will spend most of their time learning science by actually doing science. They will learn to think and act like scientists,” Neely explained. “Multiple studies have shown that students retain knowledge longer and better when they learn through all of their senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and especially, touch). When students follow the scientific method, they develop the ability to observe their world more critically and ask pertinent questions. They learn how to develop hypotheses or predictions to answer their questions, how to devise and carry out experiments to test their hypotheses, and that the data produced by their experiments is meaningless if it can’t be properly analyzed and synthesized into communicable results. Students learn not from rote memory but through the use of higher-order thinking skills. All of these skills are helpful in increasing a deeper understanding and long-term retention.”

Faculty and staff of Jackson Academy admit they can’t contain their excitement about STEM and its benefits to students. “The breadth and depth of our STEM and robotics program as well as our approach is distinctive,” said Cliff Kling, JA president elect. “Schools that implement STEM-based curriculum frequently experience improved student performance in math and science in particular. Case studies of this are quite compelling. We are thrilled to be a part of STEM advancements in education.”

In the end, it all comes back to preparing students for their future. “The STEM labs and robotics curriculum are designed to ignite and stimulate the intellectual curiosity and creativity possessed by all children. By encouraging and promoting student engagement and autonomy over their own learning, the STEM experience helps students become life-long learners, a promise of our mission statement,” concludes Kling.

That’s definitely an outcome that students will appreciate in years to come.

For further reading about STEM at Jackson Academy, click here to read the article on The Clarion-Ledger at

The Clarion-Ledger STEM Lab photo gallery