Marlea Maddox sat in front of a computer screen Thursday morning solving real-world public transportation problems.
Using Newton's laws of motion, the Signal Mountain Middle School eighth-grader calculated the force exerted on a train when it travels at certain speeds. Sitting at the computer next to her was Kylie Fox, busy reading and answering questions about the damage hurricane winds can cause.
The girls were using Learning Blade, an online program with a game-based format intended to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM subjects. The program allows students to choose among a wide variety of activities based on societal problems, exposing students to more than 100 different STEM careers and technologies.
"It gives you a lot of real-life situations," Marlea said.
Learning Blade was developed by Chattanooga entrepreneurs Shelia and Dane Boyington, both chemical engineers, and it is being used in most of Hamilton County's middle schools and more than 525 schools statewide. Thanks to the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network and through the support of lawmakers, Learning Blade is now available to any middle school in the state at no cost.
Shelia Boyington said she and her husband developed the program to meet a need, as many students across the state are graduating high school not prepared for the increasing number of well-paying STEM jobs in the region.
"This program exposes them to those jobs," she said, adding that interesting kids in STEM fields at a young age is one of the best ways to strengthen the workforce.
Learning Blade also helps accomplish goals set by Gov. Bill Haslam's Drive to 55 effort and Chattanooga 2.0, as both of those initiatives are working to increase the number of adults with post-secondary degrees or certificates, Boyington said.
Fewer than 40 percent of Hamilton County students earn any education or certificate after graduation, and Chattanooga 2.0 hopes to boost this number to 75 percent in coming years. Boyington said to accomplish that and the state's goal of having 55 percent of residents with a post-secondary education or certificate by 2025 means that current middle school students need to be prepared, exposed and motivated to take advantage of these careers.
Wes Hall, director of the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, said STEM education's greatest potential will be met only if every Tennessee student — regardless of location — can access tools such as Learning Blade.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, was a key sponsor of the legislation allowing Learning Blade to be made available to every middle school for free.
"Given our state's strong efforts to lead the nation in workforce and education, supporting the STEM Network and making STEM resources available to all in our state makes good sense," Watson said in a statement.
Learning Blade's success in Tennessee has allowed the program's reach to expand, as it's now used in 25 states. Out of the students that use the program, 71 percent say they learned about new careers and 69 percent said they recognized that what they learn in school will be useful later in life, Shelia Boyington said. Data shows the program also increases the number of students that want to be engineers or scientists and take advanced math classes in high school.
And using Learning Blade "makes learning about science more fun," Kylie said.
Joshua Payne teaches the eighth grade STEM design class at Signal Mountain that the girls are in, and he implements Learning Blade into his curriculum.
"I let the kids pick what lessons they want to do throughout the semester," Payne said, noting the program allows students to do activities aligned with their interests and work at their own pace.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.