West Valley, a small K-12 school district located outside Buffalo, New York, serves a total of 200 students. According to Dr. Taweepon Farrar, the superintendent of West Valley, this modest student population gives the school a unique opportunity to dive deep into new subject material like STEM education.
On the other end of that, accessing resources can be a difficult process for a school of this size. Securing grants is much harder to come by and obtaining sufficient support sometimes seems like a grueling process. This has not stopped the West Valley team from pursuing their goal of providing each student access to STEM lessons and resources.
A common commitment shared among West Valley’s teachers and administrators is a dedication to continuous learning and growth. STEM education offers abundant learning opportunities across all age groups due to its diverse range of skill sets. Everyone at West Valley is engaged in this learning journey together, and their enthusiasm is contagious.
West Valley is one year into implementing its STEM program using Woz ED STEM and Science Kits. In the midst of COVID-19, Dr. Farrar took it into her own hands to figure out a way to re-engage her students, light a fire for her teachers, and find the resources to do so. She wrote a grant to the state under the Covid Learning Loss Initiative and was granted enough money to buy every Woz ED STEM pathway. This began the journey of creating a stellar STEM program for West Valley Students.
Farrar understands that building a sustainable program doesn’t happen overnight. The school is taking its time in the implementation process, adding elements one at a time and seeing how they work. Leading this STEM initiative is the school librarian, Jody Thiel.
Thiel, who has a keen interest in STEM, invested significant time in learning STEM concepts so she could eventually instruct students. She now conducts daily STEAM lessons during regular library hours, connecting the content of the books students read with STEAM concepts.
With the help of Kim Lewis and Bryon Hanson, the district’s Tech Coordinator, Jody Thiel recently cleared out the school’s traditional computer lab and turned it into a STEAM Lab for elementary Students. The kids visit the STEAM Lab once or twice each week and are instructed with the Woz ED curriculum. According to both Dr.Farrar and Jodi Thiel, the students always leave eager to get back into the lab.
At the secondary level, West Valley has created a 3D printing Lab, allowing more advanced students to tinker with the slightly more complex process of using a 3D printer. While most of the initial implementation has focused on the elementary level, the hope is that these initiatives will gain traction and extend to higher grade levels. 3D printing has proven particularly popular amongst middle and high school students.
Dr. Farrar tells me that the most significant change she has noticed at West Valley with its venture into STEM education is the genuine excitement amongst students and teachers. The students leave their STEM classes eager to learn more. Teachers see the potential it has to re-engage and drive students in positive ways, so they are willing to put in the extra hours of professional development to learn these new skills. Jody Thiel comments on the impact of STEM on her students,
“The students are excited to share their ideas. They have learned that everyone has a voice and to take the time to listen to what their peers have to say. They aren’t upset when something doesn’t work. They have learned to persevere and be resilient in their efforts.”
The school has had to employ two school buses for its after-school STEM program because of how popular it is. Dr. Farrar shares the importance of providing a sense of community for students and says,
“Being a rural community and such a small school district, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for kids to do things outside in the community. We are the community.”
The introduction of STEM education at West Valley has given the district a new opportunity to create a community for its students in innovative ways. Thiel also comments on this and says,
“STEM allows students to work together to create and develop solutions to real life situations. Students learn that their first try might not work, and that failure is just part of the process. STEM brings together a sharing of ideas and allows students to blend ideas together. It provides all students with the opportunity to be a part of the learning community.”
The Obvious Answer
Dr. Farrar shares in the consensus that the “why” for an educator is usually quite obvious. It’s all for the students. Everything she does is for the students in her community. She puts it in a unique way,
“We are in the business of customer service and our students are our customers. Every customer has different needs, wants, desires, and abilities, so it’s our job as a school district to provide many different learning opportunities for students to reach their full potential and become lifelong learners and leaders in society, whatever that might look like.”
Jody Thiel would concur. She loves that, in her job, she is able to watch her students grow over many years. This not only builds a level of trust and respect, but allows her to meet the needs of each individual student. She talks about the magic of STEM Education and says,
“The world is a constantly changing place. It is important to provide students with opportunities to use their big, beautiful brains to make their world a better place. Allowing them the opportunity to grow, develop, fail, and achieve in a safe place will create adults that are ready to take on any challenge the future has to offer.”