Magazine article Techniques

Full STEAM Ahesd: Incorporating the Arts into STEM in Rural Tennessee

Magazine article Techniques

Full STEAM Ahesd: Incorporating the Arts into STEM in Rural Tennessee

Article excerpt

Appearances can deceive, but one look at Ryan Jackson will tell you he's not a typical school administrator. Tall and thin, with shoulder length hair and bracelets on his wrists, he speaks in bursts of short sentences, punctuated at times with hashtags instead of commas. His approach to education is both simple and relentless.

"I want to get kids thinking like creators," said Jackson, executive principal of three schools that serve 1,200 students in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, an hour south of Nashville. "Most of our kids have grown up in an era where creativity has been stomped out of learning. I think we're on to something that can get them excited again."

The way to get students excited, he believes, is by systematically incorporating arts (A) into the traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum. In this small community, part of the larger Maury County Schools, Jackson is doing just that with the launch of the first K-12 STEAM cluster in the nation. In two short years, the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone has drawn the attention of NASA, Discovery Education, and other businesses and corporations looking for graduates with 21st-century skills.

"Dr. Jackson has a clear vision of what STEAM should look like. He wants to do this, not just for the high school, but for all of the kids in Mount Pleasant," said Ryan Pastrana, who runs the filtration research and development center for Parker-Hannifin, a company specializing in motion and control technologies. "When we first met and he talked about this, he said, 'Since we don't know how to do it, we'll just invent it.' And he did. That impressed me."


When Chris Marczak was hired as Maury County's superintendent in 2015, he came in with a sense of urgency and plans to shake things up. The district's previous superintendent had been a longtime administrator at Columbia Central High School before taking the top job, and the board wanted a change in leadership style. Bringing in someone who had never lived in the county made sense.

"In today's society, it's not about having a high school diploma," Marczak said. "It's about a bachelor's or the equivalent, whether that's an opportunity to enter the military, receive industry certification, get into a technical college or become a journeyman on the job. It's the training we must provide to students so they can make a living wage."

Finding a way to do that in this middle Tennessee county, rapidly becoming an exurb of Nashville, has presented a series of challenges due to geographic and economic diversity. A General Motors manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, is the county's largest employer, and much of the area's industry is focused on advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics.

With approximately 80,000 residents, Maury County is made up of three cities: Spring Hill, Columbia and Mount Pleasant. Each city has its own middle school and high school, and the district operates three small K-12 schools in the unincorporated areas.

Contrast between the cities is striking. Columbia, the county seat, boasts a new $50-million, 1,370-student high school. Spring Hill, one of the fastest growing cities in the state, has just under 1,000 students at its Maury County high school. By contrast, Mount Pleasant has seen its enrollment steadily drop over the past three decades and educates fewer than 400 students in its high school, built in the 1960s.

Over a 10-week period in 2015, Marczak and board members met with community leaders, parents, students, teachers, civic organizations and other interest groups to develop the district's "Seven Keys to College and Career Readiness," a comprehensive, seven-step program that focuses on providing all students with access to Advanced Placement classes, dual enrollment and work-based learning opportunities.

Marczak has been relentless in promoting the district's accomplishments to anyone who will listen. …

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