School District of Manatee County: Experiential Learning is The Answer

Community Support for STEM Education

The School District of Manatee County was inducted as a Woz ED Pathway District in 2022. This mid-sized district, made up of 33 elementary schools, 9 middle schools, and 7 high schools, is located in Bradenton, Florida. In 2022, a bill was passed in Manatee County that proposed an additional tax for homeowners that would, in part, go towards building stronger STEM programs in their schools.

There were two separate elections that this bill was proposed in. The first took place before Manatee County started implementing more robust STEM and Science programs and won by a mere 2%. The second, which took place a few years after Manatee’s focus on STEM took off, won by 70%.

Manatee is a place that has a deep understanding of the need for STEM education. In a large manufacturing community, people have begun to make the connection between what their kids are learning in school and what kinds of jobs they will be able to hold because of this. They see the direct correlation between hands-on learning in STEM and successful, confident young people.

The Women Behind the Task

Susan Smucker, a previous Elementary Math and Science teacher and Assistant Principal, took over as Manatee County’s Woz ED coordinator in 2022. She has worked at the elementary level and has accomplished the difficult task of getting Woz ED science kits into the hands of students at all 33 of Manatee’s elementary schools.

Amber Platowski, Susan’s dynamic colleague, also comes from a background of teaching. Her area of expertise was marine science, biology, and environmental science. She was brought on to expand the STEM and Science curriculum to the district’s secondary schools, working on complicated tasks like lining up programming with state educational standards, building curriculum maps, and ensuring vertical alignment. Her current title is Secondary Science Curriculum Specialist.

Woz ED Kits in The School District of Manatee County

Palm View K-8 School was the first school in Florida to fully roll out both Woz ED STEM and Science Kits in all grade levels, K-8. This school served as a model for other elementary and secondary schools. Now, all fourth and fifth graders interact with Woz ED science kits daily. Bashaw Elementary and Ballard Elementary schools earned Science Pathway Status this year.

In addition to this, Manatee County was able to bring STEM kits into two of their Title I middle schools, allowing students access to top-notch resources and explorative learning opportunities. This came after the state of Florida granted an appropriation to the district focusing on K-12 level STEM education.

While most schools at the elementary level use the traditional integration model, where core teachers are trained on how to implement STEM and Science Kits into their classrooms, Ballard Elementary recently hired a specific STEM teacher, which will allow students more exposure to STEM concepts. This comes at a perfect time for the district as they recently secured both the Robotics and Data Science Pathway kits and curriculum from Woz ED and are gearing up to implement them at the elementary level.

The Difference

After both teaching for many years, Amber and Susan agree that we need to venture away from the textbook style of teaching. You walk into any number of classrooms on a given day and you will be sure to find teachers reading from a textbook discussing abstract concepts like “laws of gravity,” while their students doze off pretending to follow along.

The type of “experiential learning” that Woz ED STEM and Science kits allow students to have are not only more engaging and fun, but they actually help students retain information and absorb what they are learning. 

Amber tells me about one of the eighth-grade teachers at Palm View that she has been working closely with. She says that this teacher, who is fairly new to teaching, observed a major improvement in retention rates among her students.

She told Amber that after a short time implementing these hands-on lessons in her classroom, she noticed how much more students were able to recall, from memory, concepts they had learned weeks ago. This correlates to the mind, body connection. When children are actively involved in the experience of learning, they pay more attention.

Across Manatee County School District, educators and administrators have seen the effects of STEM education on their student bodies. They have seen their students grow more curious, confident, collaborative, creative, and bold. When asked what the importance of teaching kids how to use technology is, Susan says,

“This is their world. Even if they aren’t going to be an engineer or a mathematician, maybe they’ll be a nurse where they are now programming robots to bring medicine to all their patients. Knowing how to do that will be necessary.”

Hopes and Goals

Susan shared a quote with me that she has pinned above her desk that says, “Generate enthusiasm for experiential learning opportunities in science and math.” This has been, and continues to be, her goal for the future.

In the coming months, Manatee has plans to take their teachers and administrators on several field trips that allow them the opportunity to have hands-on learning experiences in areas of STEM and Science to get them excited about teaching these concepts to their students. It is important for teachers to feel excited about the material they are teaching and confident in their ability to teach it well. When this is the case, students are more likely to feel comfortable enough to explore freely.

Amber expands on this and talks about her desire to get more administrators involved and create an aligned vision of what the classroom should be like in a STEM and science learning environment. She says,

“When administrators understand everything from the 5E instructional model all the way through what they should be seeing while walking through a classroom, they are much more likely to put their faith in teachers and support them.”

Just as teachers encourage children to take risks and try new things, administrative support can allow teachers to do the same. 

The Best Motivator

If you ask any educator what the reason for their dedication to their work is, more often than not, they will give you this answer: the students. It is the students that they are working with or fighting for or impacting, both directly and indirectly, that inspire them to put countless hours of time and effort into providing the best possible education for the students they serve. Amber and Susan are no exception.

Susan tells me that it is the knowledge that she can provide more opportunities to do things that excite students and help them grow into curious, confident individuals that keeps her committed to her job.

Amber mirrors this sentiment. I love what she says about this:

“They may not be engineers or scientists or anything in that realm after K-12, but they are going to be voters, and community members, parents, and teachers.”

The students she works with each day give her hope. They are doing hard things, taking on the challenge, asking good questions, working together, and becoming passionate about making a positive difference in the world.

Published: June 30, 2023


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