Okaloosa STEMM Center Breaks New Ground In State of Florida

The Okaloosa County School District celebrated the grand opening of the Okaloosa STEMM Center and STEMM Academy with a ribbon cutting last week and opened the doors to students, community members and local dignitaries. 

“This is an important day not just for Okaloosa County, which it certainly is, but it is an important day for the State of Florida, as well, to families in every community across our state,” said Senator Don Gaetz. “The reason is because this is the first STEMM Middle School Academy in the State of Florida. The vision, the plan, the concept which Superintendent Tibbetts and this School Board had was deserving of a special legislative appropriation. At a time money is extraordinarily tight, the House, Senate, and Governor found the dollars to support a proposal to provide additional funding to start this school. This school will pioneer.”

Senator Gaetz went on to say that intensive studies in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medical Sciences are important on a state-wide basis because that is where there are the most job openings.

“A significant sector of the Florida economy, the sector where there are more jobs available and fewer qualified applicants is in computer technology,” said Senator Gaetz. “We have thousands of jobs available in this state right now for qualified applicants in that area. In the last seven years, the percentage of students graduating from Florida universities with those skills and those degrees has dropped by fifty percent.”

The same case can be made in other areas associated with STEMM.

“There is a shortage of physicians, a shortage of nurses, a shortage of qualified engineers and scientists,” said Senator Gaetz.  “We have three million jobs available [nationwide] and many of them are in Florida but we don’t have qualified Floridians ready and able and willing and educated and skilled to take those jobs. That’s why this STEMM Center is so important.”

“The STEMM Center will add value to Okaloosa County, to Northwest Florida and to the state,” said Senator Gaetz. “I am proud that I was able to play a small part in providing some of the funding. But the vision, the concept, and the risk-taking, was this Superintendent’s and this School Board’s and this communities’. What you have done today and what these students will accomplish in their lives, in their careers, will be a model for all of Florida.” 

“The number one initiative in America right now is STEMM education…Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medical Sciences,” said Superintendent Dr. Alexis Tibbetts. “We know from the research if we do not hook kids in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade in Science and Math, they are not going to be hooked. This school is going to be a shining star for the Valparaiso community and it is going to be exciting. We also have great STEMM programs in all of our schools and we are going to keep those.”

Okaloosa County’s multifaceted approach to STEMM can be characterized by the STEMM initiatives at each elementary, middle and high school. Okaloosa students are among the highest academically performing students in the state as measured by annual FCAT results. The Okaloosa STEMM Center will provide a base of operations for advancing STEMM opportunities for all Okaloosa teachers and students.

The Okaloosa STEMM Academy will open in this fall with 88 middle school students and several of those students were on hand on Wednesday to preview the classrooms.

“Sometimes it is not easy to be a risk taker and be the first one to step out on point,” Superintendent Tibbetts told the students. “As the first students coming to the STEMM Academy this fall, you are pioneers. We are proud of you and we are proud of your effort to step into a new arena.”

“My classmates and I are excited to be partners in our education,” said Marcus Fleury, an Okaloosa STEMM Academy inaugural student. “We are excited to learn new things in new ways.”

The Okaloosa STEMM Academy will have four teachers during this inaugural year. Lee Arsenault will teach Earth / Space science and a research elective; Molly Perkins will teach language Arts / English and an elective (Technical Writing / MS suite); John Reaves will teach Social Studies and PE; and Melissa Baldwin will teach mathematics  and a research elective. Rick Soria will serve as the Okaloosa STEMM Center Director and Principal of the Okaloosa STEMM Academy.

“We need more students to pursue STEMM careers,” said Soria. “The need for engineers and scientists grows every day.”

An integral part of the Okaloosa STEMM Center is the STEMM Academy, an accelerated middle school for students interested in pursuing STEMM careers. The emphasis on the Academy’s curriculum will prepare students to pursue technical professions such as engineering, mathematics and research. The curriculum supports the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) Reading Strategic Initiatives and the Math/Science Initiatives. For example, students will be required to complete all prescribed required middle grade course requirements. However, academy mathematics courses include pre-algebra, algebra and geometry in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, respectively. Science courses will require students to complete Honors Earth/Space Science, Advanced Life Science and Honors Physical Science in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade, respectively. The academy mathematics laboratory will be equipped with progressive instructional technology; such as, hand-held data-loggers, TI-Nspire devises, and digital tablets. Teachers and students will be able to communicate wirelessly and more closely produce real-world STEM scenarios. Other curricular courses include research projects such as robotics, unmanned systems, engineering, bio-medical, aerospace and information technology (IT) over the three years students attend.

During a typical day at the Academy, students will arrive and meet in the iCafe. The iCafe is a forum where students will recharge or sign-out their handheld electronic devices. The morning iCafe meetings are a time to work collaboratively on research projects and to receive the morning’s announcements electronically. Several times a week, students will be addressed by local military and civilian engineers and scientists. The diverse technical professionals will discuss the reasons they chose their profession, the education required for their profession, and the projects they are conducting for the government.

The leadership of Eglin AFB has signed an Educational Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the Okaloosa School Board. Eglin AFB Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Air Armament Center (ACC), and the 96th Airbase Wing officials have signed the EPA to acknowledge the importance of Okaloosa’s STEMM efforts and to allow installation scientists and engineers to visit the STEMM Academy on time provided by installation officials. Visits by technical professionals also allow students to ask questions and seek assistance for their annual required science projects.

The school day begins immediately after the iCafe time. Students will complete six block periods over two days. The Okaloosa Math, Science and Technology Curriculum Specialists have collaborated with the Okaloosa STEMM Director to develop an advanced Earth/Space Science lab for the academy, a state-of the art Davis Mathematics lab (sponsored by a private donor) and bio-medical lab that will be equipped with funds raised by the Twin Cities Medical Center Director.

Local community partners have been invited to participate in many activities. For example, the local employees of The Boeing Company conducted a Global Day of Service event at the Academy. Boeing employees assembled audio visual carts, painted the facility and performed campus landscaping projects. To date, Boeing employees continue to spend weekends at the Academy providing similar support. 

The Okaloosa STEMM Academy will also serve students through summer STEMM camps, competitions, fieldtrips, and programming for at-risk teens and minorities underrepresented in STEMM professions. It is intended for the Academy to ignite interest in STEMM careers and to excite both students and teachers. The STEMM Academy also has a goal to develop corporate partnerships to seek sponsorship of classroom and laboratory apparatus and materials.

The second component of the Okaloosa STEMM Center is the Engineers for America (EFA) program. The EFA STEMM initiative is a partnership between the USAF Armament Museum and the Okaloosa School District and is designed to equip teachers with strategies for making STEMM relevant to each student, and to improve overall student academic achievement. This hands-on, brains-on effort is designed to enhance awareness of STEMM by using flight, aviation/aerospace and engineering activities and experiments.  The two-tier program begins with a “Teach the Teacher” phase and includes a “Reach the Student” phase. The “Teach the Teacher” phase provides all elementary and middle school teachers with aviation/aerospace-based strategies, resources and activities to integrate STEMM in their daily teaching to enhance student achievement. EFA STEMM lessons are termed “sorties” to stay within an aviation theme. The emphasis is on hands-on activities that relate to the many aerospace engineering exhibits on display at the USAF Armament Museum. These museum exhibits are the inspiration for addressing STEMM concepts that are aligned to the FLDOE Next Generation Sunshine State Standards (NGSSS) and soon, common core standards. The EFA materials provide teachers with pre-visit preparation activities and post-visit follow-on activity ideas. Engineers, aviators and student teachers will serve as volunteer mentors for the teachers and the students who schedule a visit to the Center as a part of this program.

“We have a goal of hosting over 2,000 Okaloosa elementary grade students at the Okaloosa STEMM Center to conduct the EFA experiments during the 2012-2013 school year,” said Soria.

EFA also conducts Aviation/Space STEM Camps. These are a series of camps for elementary students in grades four and five. The curriculum includes the science and physics of flight, elementary robotics, space, the solar system, and other related STEMM topics. Most activities are hands-on. These camps are designed to keep students involved in STEMM and supplement what they are learning in their classrooms. The camps also target student ethnicities that are underrepresented in STEMM professions. The EFA Science Camps are conducted for middle school and high school students. These Saturday camps include hands-on activities in biology, general science, chemistry, and forensics.  Certified high school science teachers will lead the camps. These camps are designed to keep students involved in STEMM over the summer and complement what they are learning in their classrooms.

The Teaching Educators Aerospace Can Have Extraordinary Results (T.E.A.C.H.E.R.) workshops are a regional initiative to invite teachers from the local region to attend a week-long workshop to learn how to use aviation and aerospace to teach STEMM topics in their classrooms.

Another regional and national effort is the Engineers as Educators (EaE) initiative. EaE is a relatively new concept that will provide an orientation and training for any engineer who would like to support our EFA efforts. Curriculum materials have been developed to provide a course of instruction for engineers to prepare them to be a resource for classroom teachers and to their students. Topics such as the FLDOE NGSSS, EFA pedagogy, and EFA methodology will allow engineers to understand the educational objectives teachers are teaching their students and prepare the engineers to assist the teachers with STEM classroom activities. An AIAA facilitator will conduct this training. These EaE workshops will be a part of a national effort organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) to get more engineers into classrooms across America.

The Astronauts Memorial Foundation (in association with the National Space Foundation and NASA) nationally recognized the Okaloosa County School District’s EFA Initiative by their award of the Alan Shepard Technology in Education Award to EFA Initiative architect, Rick Soria. That same year, the newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) carried an article describing the EFA STEM Initiative and methodology to teachers across America. Then in July 2010, EFA was recognized statewide as a “Best Practice” with the STEMflorida Improved Student Outcomes Award.

The final function of the Okaloosa STEMM Center is the Center for STEMM Innovation (CSI). The CSI is an exciting initiative designed to grow STEMM presence in Okaloosa County. Teachers must be trained and equipped for the future since technology without teacher expertise does not advance STEMM education. The CSI will be equipped with progressive instructional technology such as hand-held data loggers, Texas Instruments TI-Nspire devices, and digital tablets. The center will serve as an incubator for innovative instruction and will create excitement and connection with community partners. Teacher workshops will provide local and regional educators with an opportunity to network, compare pedagogical strategies, and provide teachers a forum to develop collaborative projects, while they learn to implement best STEMM teaching practices.

STEMM programs will include training and curriculum material development for teachers, and provide ready strategies for their daily classroom use. Teachers will use STEMM materials for preparing students through pre-visit classroom activities. Local civilian and military engineers and technical professionals will augment the teacher training activities and conduct workshops to prepare engineers to work with our teachers and students.

“We are also working to develop additional partnerships with businesses, other educational institutions and both military and civilian industry to develop our STEMM efforts,” said Soria.

CPO Science has sponsored a fully equipped Physics and Physical Science Lab for teacher training.

“With the new graduation requirements, teachers will have to instruct all students, who will be required to pass either Chemistry or Physics in order to graduate,” said Shawnea Tallman, OCSD Science Specialist.

Another exciting partnership is with the Doolittle Institute. This non-profit organization expressed a desire to help the STEMM initiative in Okaloosa County by offering all of the District’s students the opportunity to experience flight labs, virtual reality labs, and real-time prototyping at no cost to the School District.

“The synergistic effect of the activities collocated at the Okaloosa STEMM Center will radically improve the STEMM education provided to our students throughout the District,” said Superintendent Tibbetts. “The Okaloosa County School District has a vision of a seamless, STEMM enhanced education for all students. Tomorrow’s engineers and technically trained workforce need to begin their education today. We have the vision, the inspiration, the motivation, and determination to improve the STEMM education for all Okaloosa County students.”

For more information abouth the STEMM Center or STEMM Center programs, please contact Rick Soria, Director Okaloosa STEMM Center at (850) 833-4120 or SoriaR@mail.okaloosa.k12.fl.us.

Okaloosa STEMM Center
379 Edge Avenue
Valparaiso, FL 32580
(850) 833-4120
FAX (850) 833-4177