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R. Stephen Green

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R. Stephen Green 

In DeKalb County schools, building a car from the ground up is just one of Green’s ambitious STEM initiatives.

By Michelle R. Davis

The wind swirled as the black helicopter came flying in over the Dunwoody High School football field in Atlanta. It touched down to cheers and the brass notes of a marching band. DeKalb County School District superintendent R. Stephen Green emerged, having helped pilot the landing after a short lesson.

Green was on the field in November to announce a new project: Students at two high schools—Dunwoody and McNair—would be building a street-legal car from the ground up as part of a wider effort to boost STEM experiences in the district. The car, a replica of a Ford 1965 Daytona Coupe, was donated by the Ford Motor Company and delivered in 30 boxes, and students would build the automobile, bolt by bolt. As Green knows from flying the opening-ceremony helicopter, “doing” is a lot more interesting that watching.

“The intent is to get students excited about STEM and projects that will engage them,” says Green. His enthusiasm, both for the helicopter ride and the Daytona Coupe project, has buoyed educators and students in the district.

“There are different ways to inspire students to learn,” Green adds, “especially those who may not be learners in the traditional manner.”

The 101,000-student DeKalb, Georgia, district is pushing forward with a widespread STEM initiative, an effort that predates Green’s time in the district. It was kicked off during the 2012–13 academic year with 12 schools, as part of a larger $34 million Race to the Top grant.

But under Green’s leadership, which began in July 2015, the STEM project has expanded. It now includes 96 district schools with plans that range from aquaponics to coding and robotics. Many of the projects are done in conjunction with industry partners.

“If you build the excitement and relevance on the front end, then you can introduce content-rich material,” Green explains. “But if you start with algorithms and the Pythagorean theorem, some students have lost interest from the very beginning.”

Stability and Innovation

Even before Green stepped into the helicopter in November, he was used to turbulence.

Before arriving in DeKalb, Green spent four years in Missouri leading the 16,700-student Kansas City Public Schools, building it from a system on the brink of collapse to one that at his departure was showing gains in student achievement.

The Kansas City district had seen a revolving door of superintendents, and Green brought stability and an ability to build consensus. He partnered with neighboring districts, community organizations, and businesses, a model he is continuing with his efforts in DeKalb around STEM initiatives. Besides partnering with Ford for the car itself, Green has brought in a local company, The Flying Classroom, to help lead the car build. And in the works are projects like the aquaponics one, where students are growing food, including raising fish, through soilless agriculture with the help of a $15,000 aquaponics lab, including two 500-gallon tanks. This project was done in cooperation with Georgia-based company HATponics Sustainable Agriculture. Elsewhere, elementary school students are working with the Atlanta zoo to create enrichment toys for the animals.

Hannah Maharaj, the district’s K–12 STEM coordinator, believes that the importance of such programs becomes clear when looking at Georgia’s workforce data, which reveals that the state needs 35,000 engineers to fill jobs in the next decade. And that’s not even including other types of STEM-related jobs, she says.

The car project gets students thinking about the automotive industry, but there’s also real-world math and science embedded in the process. Plus, there’s the “cool” factor. The district has found that attendance improves, suspension rates drop, and student engagement goes up when students are actively involved in a STEM project, says Maharaj.

But Green hasn’t mandated that all schools participate, nor has he mandated what that participation should look like when it occurs.

“At their own pace and in their own time, principals and instructional leaders will embrace STEM,” he says. “That’s part of the culture of our district.”

On the other hand, it doesn’t mean schools can sit this one out, Green says. His aim is to use these projects to raise the rigor of the type of learning taking place in STEM. His enthusiasm for the project, and the accolades and interest around what other schools are doing, have a “gravitational pull” that ultimately draws in the slow adopters. “They don’t want to be left out,” he says.

Students as Problem Solvers

Green paid a visit to Dunwoody recently to check on how the car build is going. Students already had the frame built and electrical wiring in and were preparing to install a 360-horsepower engine.

For Dunwoody sophomore Jackson Grant, the car build feels like real life. The manual that came with the Daytona Coupe didn’t match up exactly with the model students are working on, so trouble-shooting and adaptations are a priority. Collaboration is also key, Jackson says. “I’m definitely more excited about a hands-on class,” he says. “It gets kind of boring just sitting at a desk and listening.”

Rose Thomas, the engineering and technology instructor at Dunwoody who is overseeing the car build, says Green’s support makes a difference. She gets the resources she needs—a 3D printer, power and shop tools, computers with CAD engineering software. “The county gives us an incredible amount of support,” she says. “We’re trying to think about how students can be better problem solvers. We want them to be innovators.”

That’s what Green is hoping for as well. “We’re continuing to increase our depth and breadth with regard to STEM- and project-based learning,” he says. “We want to create pathways for students that answer the question of relevance but at the same time embed them in real-world experiences.” 

R. Stephen Green Bio

Age: 62  Salary: $300,000

Career Path: Green’s career in education has ranged from high school English teacher to assistant principal to superintendent. He has also spent time outside of school districts. He was president and CEO of Kauffman Scholars, an academic enrichment program, and he has been at the helm of the New Jersey Teaching and Learning Collaborative and the CollegeEd program for the College Board. Green was named superintendent of Georgia’s DeKalb County schools in July 2015. Before that, he was superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools from 2011 to 2015.

PHOTOS: COURTESY OF DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

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