Many of Atlanta’s private schools focus on STEM education with an array of programs for even the youngest of elementary-age students. read more
By Ken Abramczyk
For many private middle schools and high schools across Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs, STEM programs are an integral part of the education experience, ensuring that students graduate with a vital understanding of science, technology, engineering and math. While STEM education often starts at the elementary level, the emphasis on STEM (or STEAM, when art is added to the mix) undoubtedly increases for students in middle and high school, as educators strive to have their curiosity continue and possibly pursue further STEM studies and careers. Here, we look at the various STEM programs and opportunities afforded to older students at independent schools across the metro area. The perfect option could be waiting for you and your family today.
A Comprehensive Approach
“STEM (or STEAM) is a philosophy of teaching that encourages and supports creativity and innovation in students. It is not the ‘what’ of the curriculum, but rather the ‘how,’” notes Laurie Mazor, principal of The Wood Acres School in Marietta. With that in mind, Wood Acres offers challenging, student-centered, inquiry-based experiences integrated into electives starting in middle school. Middle school students study seismic earthquakes, stop motion animation, paper chair engineering, marionette-pulling-strings engineering, climate and sustainability and more; they also learn that math “is beautiful” in their elective courses.
The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy in Atlanta integrates STEM throughout its curriculum and offers it in independent programs. “We prioritize computational thinking skills beginning at age 4 so that by eighth grade, students have a strong foundation for computer science,” says Stacy Brown, director of innovation and professional learning, who adds that students create content in modern innovation labs on both of the academy’s campuses. In fact, Davis Academy’s middle school students who are technology and innovation leaders learn from modern-day innovators, creating their own unique projects. Brown continues, “For example, this year’s Tech Pioneers visited Georgia Tech’s Invention Center and built wearable technology that helps spread kindness.” Students also recently showcased their unique projects and presentation skills at the Georgia Educational Technology Conference and regularly share a DrawBot that acts as a digital sign around the school, which is complemented by an accompanying documentary explaining their design, build and coding process with Python. What’s more, the Davis Academy prioritizes the faculty’s professional development. Brown continues, “We ensure the curriculum evolves as the technology changes. We have partnered with organizations, such as The Social Institute, to implement meaningful activities that relate to modern-day technology usage, such as analytical thinking, creative thinking and artificial intelligence and ensure our students develop the skills predicted to be in high demand.”
STEM also takes a “prominent place” in the curriculum at Annunciation Day School in Atlanta, according to Alan M. Greenwood, head of school. He explains, “STEM should not be viewed simply as an add-on to the school curriculum, but as an interleafed learning series that permeates many areas of learning on a day-to-day basis.” Students in the third grade and up are expected to receive personalized laptops this upcoming school year with iPads available for younger students. Greenwood continues, “This is not so children are on devices all day, but so technology becomes as synonymous as any tool a student might have in their pencil case to enhance learning.” For instance, while learning about geography and studying Rio de Janeiro, students can jump into Google Earth and immerse themselves in that city rather than using an outdated atlas. He adds, “It’s about bringing learning to life and increasing the relevance to each student.” Additionally, Annunciation Day School students often get outside of the classroom to experience STEM. They take a range of trips around Atlanta and Georgia to create memorable experiences, exploring everything from the Fernbank Science Center to participating in lake assessments and enjoying pond dipping at Rock Eagle Camp.
Trinity School in Atlanta also integrates STEM into all of its programming for students, from 3-year-old children through sixth grade students. “We have dedicated makerspaces, science and technology labs and outdoor learning areas that engage and ignite curiosity for our learners,” says Marsha Harris, director of curriculum. “We have developed a curriculum and innovation hub (iHub) that establishes a foundation of engineering and design principles. Students build, imagine and explore with new tools and skills in the iHub while making cross-curricular connections across academic areas.”
At the upper level, St. Francis High School in Milton offers STEM integration across the curriculum and in every department. “Our Innovation Lab has a full Mac lab, 3D printers, a virtual reality lab, programmable Sphero robots, a robotics lab and a host of software applications for all our teachers and students to utilize,” says Brandon Bryan, director of admissions and curriculum. After taking an Introduction to Computer Science class, students can follow one of two tracks: computer science or engineering, both of which culminate in AP Computer Science Principles their senior year.
Atlanta International School offers an International Baccalaureate STEM endorsement, an enhancement of the IB diploma that students can work to obtain, which school officials call an ideal preparation for college and careers in STEM and STEAM. Requirements include the completion of a two-week internship in a STEM field of interest. “Our Goizueta Da Vinci Fellowship allows us to host distinguished STEAM practitioners who develop cross-curricular workshops and learning experiences,” says Alice Cappelletti, communications specialist. “The foundation grant also enables the AIS Incelerator, an entrepreneurship program aimed at transforming student and faculty ideas for products and businesses ready to launch.”
Students in seventh through 12th grade at the Wesleyan School in Peachtree Corners can participate in a wide array of STEM offerings, including 3D modeling and printing, aeronautics, architecture, biomedical engineering, computer programming in multiple languages, construction, engineering, kinematics, mechanics, microbiology, neurology, physiology, robotics, statics and others. Students prep for these courses by taking a STEM course in addition to core curriculum courses in kindergarten through sixth grades. By middle school, students can choose from 13 elective courses in STEM within three categories: biomedical science, computer science and engineering design.
Woodward Academy, located in College Park and Johns Creek, offers a range of STEM-related opportunities that foster innovation and critical thinking, according to Connie White, director of learning and innovation. For example, upper school students can access a cutting-edge genomics lab, where they delve into practical applications of cell biology and molecular genetics. She explains, “They analyze their own DNA using PCR and Gels in biology classes, participate in a captivating criminal forensics course and benefit from a dedicated Pasco Physics lab.” What’s more, students can deeply explore STEM passion projects in the Ethical Dilemmas in Science and Technology course. White continues, “This course combines ethical decision-making with computational thinking. Students engage with AI, VR, 3D fabrication and more to create artifacts of understanding.”
Lakeview Academy, located in Gainesville, takes pride in its expanding STEM-based opportunities. “As a school, Lakeview recognizes our rapidly evolving world and is deeply invested in preparing its students as creative and resilient problem solvers,” says Dr. Wade Hanse, director of curriculum and alignment. Through a dual enrollment program, students take courses through the Georgia Tech Distance Program, as well as student-centered technology classes in middle school. He adds, “Lakeview Academy’s STEM offerings are intentionally designed to empower students to become innovative thinkers and leaders. We sincerely hope these experiences will help inspire our students to be active participants in shaping their world.”
Technology at the Forefront
From equipment to courses, technology has become an integral part of the school day for students across metro Atlanta. For instance, Atlanta International School’s instruction of technology and STEAM are transdisciplinary. According to Cappelletti, “Students inquire and investigate important concepts without the boundaries of different disciplines so the relevance of technology remains at the forefront of learning.” In secondary school, STEAM is interdisciplinary, as students integrate knowledge or skills from two or more subjects to develop solutions or products. In fact, the school’s Innovators program encourages all staff members to participate in designing impactful, innovative and authentic learning spaces and experiences, ensuring students have more engaging and meaningful experiences to promote the joy of learning. “We don’t teach in a vacuum,” she continues. “Technology is used to make relevant connections, both in and out of the classroom. Students apply and synthesize state-of-the-art technology to create real-world solutions to problems.”
GRACEPOINT School, a specialized school in Marietta that serves dyslexic learners in grades 1 through 8, provides fourth through eighth grade students with daily access to Chromebooks. “Students are instructed throughout the year on using their devices and all of the applications they use on their devices,” says Carrie Harris, director of technology. In addition to using Google Suite for word processing and storage needs, she says, “We use Google Classroom as a way to communicate with our students. In an ever-changing world of technology, we are constantly reading up on and researching new trends.” Harris also attends a conference every summer to ensure that GRACEPOINT is able to implement new technology as often as possible.
At Trinity School, computer skills are introduced in the first grade and scaffolded through a student’s entire tenure at the school. According to Marsha Harris, “Our director of education technology, a founding member of the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, ensures we stay on top of the latest technology and best practices by, amongst other things, maintaining a network of like-minded professionals.”
Lakeview Academy acknowledges that the needs and interests of each child are “wonderfully unique,” Hanse says, nothing that technology plays a large part in fulfilling the needs of both middle and upper school students. He states, “Lakeview’s middle school technology courses are designed to allow each child to pursue either a digital design or programming focus all while contributing to a collaborative goal in the classroom.” Upper school students can choose from several computer science and digital media courses to fulfill their technology requirements.
At Pace Academy in Atlanta, technology is a daily part of the students’ lives, according to Charlie Bryant, chair of Pace’s computer science department. “Pace Academy offers many courses that require the use of various forms of technology, from physics labs experiments to digital organization and communication to writing code to solve real-world problems,” he explains, nothing that natural curiosity from teachers and students is the driving force behind the evolution of technology in the classroom. “For instance, ChatGPT has been a huge topic in my classes this year. We’ve discussed its capabilities and pitfalls, how it works and how to use it as a learning or study tool, as well as academic dishonesty and how ChatGPT can enhance learning without crossing that line.” To keep up with the latest technology, biology teacher Dr. Kaylan Haizlip reveals, “At Pace we ensure that faculty, and subsequently students, keep up with changes in technology by engaging in professional development and attending conferences, actively working in labs and establishing and maintaining contact with professionals in the field.”
Middle school students at St. Francis take CAPP (computer applications), reveals Brandon Bryan, director of admissions and curriculum. He says, “As a Google-based school, our students come to understand the Google platform through project-based learning. Keyboarding and responsible online citizenship are also addressed in CAPP.”
Wesleyan’s students in fifth through 12th grades receive a Microsoft Surface Pro 9. Students have a Microsoft 365 account and can access software, such as Adobe and Autodesk, to use in STEM and fine arts classes. OneDrive, OneNote and Teams apps also are used for collaborative projects and organization. According to Jennifer Copeland, assistant head of school for external affairs, “Students are trained how to effectively and responsibly use these devices and software by a dedicated technology coach.”
STEM in Action
For many local private schools, STEM often is found both inside and outside the classroom, as students are given opportunities to participate in a variety of unique opportunities and extracurricular activities and showcase their interests and talents.
For example, the Innovation Program at Lakeview Academy has generated award-winning robotics teams in middle and high school. In fact, Hanse points to Lakeview’s robust robotics program, which have paved the way for middle school teams to earn multiple awards and consistently reach the state tournament in the FIRST LEGO League Challenge. The upper school team recently advanced to the 2023 FIRST World Championship in the First Tech Challenge. Teams have represented Lakeview at the state tournament for six consecutive years.
Woodward Academy’s eighth grade students participate in the CO2 Dragster Design project; the opportunity allows them to plan, design and construct vehicles using digital technology, including CAD software and online platforms. “Using power tools, students integrate essential components and fine-tune their dragsters for optimal performance,” White says. Students’ skills, creativity and engineering expertise are showcased in an exciting CO2 dragster race at the project’s conclusion.
Trinity School’s afterschool program allows students to participate in robotics, Lego design, stop motion animation and more. All this learning-by-doing with technology, materials and iterations prepare students for human-centered problem solving. “They are readily able to pivot, build, imagine, collaborate and think critically,” Marsha Harris says, noting that Trinity students design, prototype and iterate their ideas regularly. “They build traps to catch the Gingerbread Man, create models of the ocean floor, explore coding, design roller coasters while they learn about force and motion, create castles in their literature units and put their understanding of urban design and planning into action as sixth graders creating three-dimensional models of the city of Atlanta throughout its history.”
GRACEPOINT School students often work on Shark Tank projects. “Students build a prototype and present their products to actual leaders in our community,” says Debbie Engelstad, director of STEAM at Gracepoint. “We also promote starting your own business in an entrepreneurial unit, as dyslexics often become owners of their own business.”
Pace Academy’s robotics teams compete in the FIRST Tech challenge, and clubs like Girls Who Code allow students to hone their programming and project-design skills, according to Haizlip. She explains, “We want to inspire students to view themselves as more than users of technology. We want them to understand that they can be creators as well.”
Springmont School, located in Atlanta, sees its middle school participate in the Future City Competition every other year. During the event, middle school teams from across the country employ math and science concepts to design solutions for real-world problems. “The 2023 challenge was to design a futuristic city that makes the world a better place by addressing climate change,” says Julie Strickland, director of marketing and communications. “Students collaborated to imagine, research, design and build models of cities that showcase their solutions.” Springmont’s participating students researched climate change, geography, earth and weather systems, city design, science and technology innovations and engineering. Their preparation for the competition included converting the science classroom into a makerspace. Experts in fields of civil engineering, project management and the engineering design process spoke to the students, and students also learned about data-based trends in climate science and societal impacts. Then the students completed a 1,500-word essay, a scale model built from mostly recycled materials and a seven-minute presentation before participating in a question-and-answer session with the judges, who were STEM professionals. One of Springmont’s four teams placed second overall out of 33 teams in Georgia. The three others were recognized for best overall infrastructure design, best project plan and highest-scoring presentation. Strickland continues, “In addition to exploring STEM, students furthered their communication, time management and leadership skills, as well as creativity and teamwork. Springmont’s Middle School students enjoy the competitive environment and appreciate the opportunity to learn science through a different approach.”
Together all of these opportunities open the door to a wide array of opportunities for students not only as they make their way through middle school and high school, but also as they prepare to move on to higher education and beyond. As Shelley Adkisson, STEM teacher at the Wood Acres School concludes, “STEM and STEAM exposure is key to a future filled with new technology and improved ways of life."
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