Rock Hill STEAM school honored for approach to learning

Eighth-grader Alyssa Scruggs enjoys solving real problems with other students. She and others at Saluda Trail Middle School say it’s how they learn best.

What about a saltwater-powered boat engine to help people in the Bahamas? When saltwater interacts to corrode copper and aluminum, it generates small amounts of electricity, said Hunter Morgan, 14.

Scruggs, Morgan and a team of two others dreamed up the idea for a school project on a new product or service that could help an impoverished country. They researched the country’s culture and needs, looked at engine designs, calculated the needs for power and presented their idea to others.

“I like being in an open space where we can have our ideas and can work on things instead of being in a heavily controlled space,” said Scruggs, 14. Instead of sitting and listening to a teacher, she said, “we are actually doing.”

Such projects are part of the approach to learning for all 825 sixth-to-eighth-grade students at Saluda Trail, one of several Rock Hill schools which students can choose to attend. Saluda Trail is a STEAM school, with a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

The school recently became the third middle school in South Carolina to earn international AdvanceED STEM certification for its science, technology, engineering and math program, said principal Brenda Campbell. A STEAM certification that includes arts education is not available, Campbell said, so the school went for STEM.

The school’s STEAM program began about 3  1/2 years ago, and has been built with existing staff on a foundation of teaching required state education standards.

Teachers with special interests volunteered to expand the curriculum to include a range of elective classes such as robotics, computer science, digital media art, journalism, video production and others, she said.

There is also a strong focus project-based learning, including student collaboration, research, problem solving and the presentation of finished ideas to a group, Campbell said.

Campbell said students are encouraged to “think big” without being told that something won’t work, or that if the idea was a good one it would already have been invented.

“There may still be questions, and whether all the calculations are exactly right is still to be determined,” Campbell said. “But we don’t limit what they are capable of doing.”

Campbell said the approach to teaching involves students relating to a real-world situation, answering a problem or issue, connecting to resources outside the school and presenting the solution to a real audience.

Campbell said the school still has traditional teacher-to-student classroom instruction, but even then, it encourages teachers to give students the chance to practice and apply what they learn.

In the recent eighth grade project for which students were to create a product or service to benefit an impoverished country, the ideas ran the gamut.

They included a simple, homemade water filtration system for Ecuador, nutritional smoothies for St. Lucia and a realistic looking fishing lure for the Bahamas.

Shelby Gipson, 13, who helped teachers create the project, thinks it’s a good way to learn. “It transforms you as a learner and a person and makes students more open to learning,” she said.

Other projects have involved planning the itinerary and cost of a trip to Charleston, which the students will take in a few weeks to learn about South Carolina history; colonizing a planet, including the trip to get there and its government, housing, food and water; and making a paper roller coaster.

Wilson Mew, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, said she believes the research and presenting skills his students must use have made a difference.

“The students are more well-rounded,” he said. “Their presentation skills have gotten much better. They are learning skills I didn’t learn until 11th or 12th grade, even college.”

School district leaders say they want to build on what’s been happening at Saluda Trail as the middle school students move up to high school.

The Rock Hill school board recently approved a plan to allow students from Saluda Trail’s STEAM program to choose to attend South Pointe High School, where a high school-level program is being developed.

South Pointe Principal Al Leonard said the program, in development over the past year or two, is a philosophy of teaching and learning rather than a collection of classes. He said teachers have had training and staff members have visited other schools.

Educators say the idea of such an approach is to remove barriers that separate educational disciplines such as math, science and others and incorporate them into real and relevant learning.

One of the main goals is to give students the chance to apply what they are learning.

Leonard said it’s all built on state standards, and on developing a broad set of characteristics that the state aims for its graduates to have, including not only knowledge, but innovation, self direction, interpersonal and communication skills.

Leonard said South Pointe plans to being the new approach with its freshman class in the fall and gradually build on that. “It’s a three- to five-year process that will be phased in,” he said.

Saluda Trail teachers say growing such a program takes time.

“We blazed a trail,” said Jean Stillman, a Saluda Trail English teacher for the past 12 years. Stillman said it’s a different way to teach, and that it required a lot of training and planning by teachers, but one she said has been worthwhile.

“What this allows our kids to do is, it’s an extension of our learning in the classroom,” Stillman said. “It’s a mystery, sometimes, what they are going to come up with.”

The most rousing endorsement comes from students.

“Most kids don’t like school,” said eighth-grader Kathryne Cole, 13. “I love school because we are not just sitting in a classroom learning about things that probably wouldn’t affect us.”

Lizi Lengel, 13, said teachers create the guidelines for each project, but students have freedom to decide where to take it. “You get to work with things that you might do later on in life,” she said, “but at a younger age.”

Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077