Friday, April 19, 2024

York County Schools STEM Efforts Earning High Recognition

One of the York County School Division’s maker spaces in action. (YCSD)

YORK COUNTY — Students and staff in York County schools are practicing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) daily and the awards for the curriculum are rolling in.

In June 2023, the York County School Division (YCSD) was honored with an Innovative Practice Award from the Virginia Department of Education. The division was chosen for its implementation of a program at 14 elementary and middle schools that provides a STEM-focused curriculum, maker spaces, summer enrichment camps, career exploration, STEM-related club activities, teacher professional learning, and access to STEM professionals.

Vika Stephenson, YCSD Grant Coordinator and Writer, and Courtney Gonzalez-Vega, YCSD Coordinator of Science, have been working together to ensure grant money for STEM applications.

Thanks in part to a $1M dollar grant from the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), maker spaces are being placed in all York County Schools. Maker spaces are collaborative workspaces inside schools for making, learning, exploring, and sharing that uses high-tech to no-tech tools.

“The programs and practices that we’ve been able to implement over the past five years are a result of us being awarded that grant. The grant helped to fund all of the maker spaces and curriculum and learning opportunities for our teachers and students. DoDEA was an integral part of our ability to implement these at a district level for our students in grades K through eight,” Stephenson said.

A lesson on building bridges at a YCSD Maker Space. (YCSD)

Maker spaces can be used for all subjects that are taught in schools for different applications. For example, an English teacher can take their class to the maker space where they can develop something that relates to a story they are reading.

Gonzalez-Vega sees the impact that maker spaces are having on the students.

“The students are always excited and ask when they can go to the maker space. They really look forward to it. It gives students the opportunity to become leaders with their peers and be successful with this kind of instruction,” Gonzalez-Vega said.

In addition to the maker space creations, YCSD also partnered with Old Dominion University for professional development and training opportunities for staff. YCSD has also developed a long-range plan for building sustainability at the high school level through each school’s learning commons.

YCSD just received an additional $2 million grant from the Department of Defense Education Activity to increase their environmental and maritime science course offerings, including looking into starting the Governor’s STEM Academy at York High School.

“When our students who opt to go into environmental or maritime science, they will not only have the unique course offerings, but they will be able to graduate having industry certifications. They can then go off and obtain more post-secondary education or a career experience in these two pathways,” Stephenson said.

With the $2 million grant, YCSD is going to be continuing its partnership with Old Dominion, but will also bring on Nauticus, the Mariners Museum, the Virginia Living Museum, and Waterman’s Museum.

Students apply STEM-based learning practices at YCSD maker spaces. (YCSD)

“There will be new course offerings that are designed to get them that hands-on experience in maritime and environmental science. We want to design courses that help get our students out of the classroom and into the environment, really learning and applying those principles. There will be opportunities for summer enrichment, after-school clubs and activities and more,” Stephenson said.

Gonzalez-Vega is passionate about finding ways to get students outside of the classroom and into real-world environments that promote STEM learning.

Overall, Stephenson and Gonzalez-Vega agree that the STEM education YCSD is providing its students will continue well beyond their scholastic years.

“One of the things I always say is that this generation of students, we are preparing them for jobs that do not yet exist. It’s really important that we expose them to a variety of career pathways, really focusing on the importance of STEM in their everyday curriculum,” said Stephenson. Gonzalez-Vega continued, “We’re preparing them with other skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, things that aren’t necessarily concepts, but are very beneficial to the workplace post-graduation. Maker space and STEM education help build those foundations for those skills for them to understand that failure is an opportunity, it’s not negative, it’s the opportunity to be successful and try again.”

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