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Oak Ridge Schools aim to be among America’s premier STEM districts

John Beard and Jim Dodson, Jefferson Middle School, Oak Ridge Schools

Established during World War II as a “secret city” to help develop the atomic bomb in the foothills of East Tennessee, Oak Ridge was kept off the U.S. map for almost a decade. More than 70 years later, educators at Oak Ridge Schools are working to put their historic town on the map as one of America’s premier STEM school districts.

As part of its STEM initiative to emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the school system is partnering with Discovery Education, a company that provides standards-based digital content and professional development for K-12 education.

On Tuesday, the district’s Jefferson Middle School served as host of an interactive social studies lesson led by Oak Ridge sixth-grade teacher Chris Layton and watched by educators nationwide through a live video stream on Discovery Education’s website.

During the hour-long class that focused on political processes, students never opened a textbook. Instead, they watched videos about the federal government on Discovery Education’s “Techbook” and participated in activities such as “political Jenga,” in which they constructed a tower based on the Bill of Rights and deconstructed it by removing rights they deemed least important. They also conducted conversations about the First Amendment using only questions.

“You have kids now, they can Google anything,” Layton explained to Chalkbeat as he prepared for Tuesday’s interactive lesson. “That used to be the carrot at the end of the stick as a teacher. You know, ‘I’m the teacher and I know the answer.'”

The push toward technology and projects has changed the way Layton thinks about teaching. He was trained to think of the teacher as the sole transmitter of knowledge, but now he puts the creation of knowledge more in his students’ hands. Increased use of technology means lessons are less facts-based and more investigation-based.

At least seven Tennessee schools identify themselves as STEM schools that emphasize the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. However, Oak Ridge is the state’s first school system to brand itself a STEM district.

Led by Superintendent Bruce Borchers, the district operates eight schools with more than 4,700 students and is working to incorporate digital technology into all classrooms, regardless of subject, from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. Key to that initiative is a six-year partnership with Discovery Education, an outgrowth of the company that operates the Discovery and TLC cable television networks.

Discovery Education manager Emily Stigman and Oak Ridge social studies teacher Chris Layton lead a class streamed Tuesday to educators across the nation.
Discovery Education manager Emily Stigman and Oak Ridge social studies teacher Chris Layton lead a class streamed Tuesday to educators across the nation.
Discovery Education

The school system in Oak Ridge, which remains a federal hub for nuclear and energy research and technology, is becoming the company’s poster child to demonstrate how digital tools can transform education. During Tuesday’s live stream to educators, Layton’s lesson to students was interspersed with comments to educators from Emily Sigman, the manager of instructional implementation for Discovery Communications. She described how Discovery products might be used in classrooms.

The partnership with Discovery Education is part of an overall attitude shift to embody STEM ideals in the classroom, said Tracey Beckendorf-Edou, the district’s supervisor for teaching and learning. But while the school system is emphasizing the use of computers and other devices to teach all subjects, the emphasis on STEM education shouldn’t be all about technology, she said.

Beckendorf-Edou defines a STEM course as one that uses the four Cs — communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. The district promotes project-based learning, a method in which students learn by dedicating an extended period of time to investigate a complex question, just as much as it promotes the use of technology. To lead the charge, district has designated teachers such as Layton to serve as STEM coaches.

Earlier in the year, Layton incorporated STEM into his class by having students use Minecraft video games to recreate Mesopotamia, the ancient Greek area corresponding to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and northeast Syria. He frequently directs his students to tackle historic policy problems, to see if they would solve them differently.

Project-based learning can be difficult initially, Layton acknowledges.

“For students having lived in the age of standardized tests and No Child Left Behind, trying to dig a little deeper is harder sometimes. Sometimes they’re just like, ‘tell me what the answer is!'” said Layton, noting that students quickly move from that mindset to a more inquisitive one.

“You’re becoming more of the facilitator, and putting them in the driver’s seat,” he said of his role as a STEM educator.

Contact Grace Tatter at

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