Henderson Mill Elementary school recently became the first STEM-certified school in the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) by the Georgia Department of Education. However, gifted students’ teacher Diane Maslia said the school has been moving in that direction for years.
“We believe we’re the first elementary school, too,” Maslia said.
In recent years, many schools have begun embracing a curriculum centered on the hands-on teaching of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). There are several other STEM-certified schools in Georgia, including Marietta Center for Advanced Academics, which Maslia said she visited when Henderson Mill was working on its STEM application.
“We saw it and said, ‘You know, we’re doing a lot of this stuff anyway and it’s the best hands-on way that we can reach our kids,’” Maslia said.
Several years ago Maslia and other teachers at the school began thinking of different ways to meet the needs of its student population, she said Henderson Mill is a Title I school, which means it receives federal funding because many of its students come from low-income homes.
Maslia said Henderson’s demographics are approximately one-third White, one-third Black and one-third Hispanic.
“We decided that we needed to find a way between all the languages—we have about 20-25 languages spoken here—that we could get hands-on math and science to our children,” Maslia said.
Before beginning the STEM application process, Maslia said the school looked at the possibility of becoming a charter school but decided against it because of the contentious charter debate happening in Georgia at the time.
“We knew that engineering, math and science was the way of the future,” Maslia said.
Maslia is the school’s STEM chairwoman and teaches most of the engineering classes. As a student walked up and handed her his engineering homework, Maslia said many of the children at the school haven’t had the opportunity to learn about STEM subjects. She said things even as small as gardening gives the students a new hands-on experience that helps reinforce what they learn in the classroom.
“We have a huge garden outside and we’re partners with an engineering firm,” Maslia said.
Outside in the garden area, each class has a plot and grows vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce and Swiss chard. The garden is watered by a system of pipes that feed into several elevated rain barrels. When the vegetables are ready to be harvested, Maslia said, the staff and students prepare them and talk about what they’re eating.
Currently, Henderson Mill uses the Engineering is Elementary program, a research-based curriculum that integrates engineering and technology concepts and skills with elementary science topics.
The school, like several other schools in DCSD, also participates in the Small Fry 2 Go program, where students hatch fish and raise them in the classroom then release them into the wild. Each year the program releases approximately 72,000 fish into the Chattahoochee River.
The fish, or fry as they’re called when they are small, are cared for by the students and parent volunteers, who feed them during the week and check on them each weekend until they’re big enough to be released.
“As we progressed we learned how to take common everyday lessons and develop them into some type of hands-on project,” Maslia said.