Cook: The fruits from the STEM

Cook: The fruits from the STEM

December 6th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

There are 135 iPads at our county's STEM school. Every student has one.

A more telling fact? There are zero desks. Plenty of tables and chairs, but not a desk to be found.

Obviously, the students' iPads matter as the coming world will be draped in technology. Amazon drones may deliver our purchases, cars are driving themselves, a growing robot population soon will be among us. So here in the Gig City, to keep devices away from our kids is like pushing them into the river without teaching them to swim.

But no desks? STEM students sit together at tables, creating an image that's layered with importance.

They're sitting together because they're working together. And they're working together because collaboration is exactly what the 21st century will require, which is the exact opposite of single-chair isolated individualism.

"What world are we going to?" asked Jim David, lead instructor at STEM. "We have to do 21st-century things."

The school, which opened one year ago, has freshmen and sophomores. Students from across the area enroll through a lottery system. More than half the student body qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches.

Located on the Chattanooga State Community College campus, the school day starts at 9:30 a.m. Students take core subjects, including art and, next year, physical education. Whites outnumber black students, but not by much. Same is true for male and females.

Within such rather normal demographics, teachers and students are answering more than anyone else the Great Question: What does 21st-century education look like?

"Without a doubt," said David, who left a tenured career and multiple teacher-of-the-year awards from an area high school to teach at STEM. "We're pioneers, blazing the trail, finding the pitfalls, finding out what works."

Thursday morning, he was teaching sophomores in his personal finance class. Sort of.

There was no old-school, lecture-giving lectern, although kids could probably build one from the nearby 3-D printer. Instead, David walked around to each table, where groups of students created their own online insurance companies. (Insert Obamacare joke here).

David advised, suggested, re-routed and complimented the students, who seemed as much involved in their learning as their teacher.

It was quite powerful: dozens of teenagers, armed with iPads, doing meaningful work. The thing we should fear about an overdigitized world is that our machines control us. What I saw Thursday at STEM was the opposite of that.

Throughout the year, kids learn through project-based learning, which requires them to answer some heavy questions: How do we prevent new strains of viruses from emerging? How do we mitigate the effects of 100-degree days? How do we build energy-efficient, cost-effective homes?

Not I.

But we.

"Hands-on education," said David.

On Dec. 14, at the Chattanooga Public Library, students all across Hamilton County can take part in the Hour of Code, a national initiative designed to get students of all ages learning how to write code. (Register at

Next year, the STEM school will add another grade, and a new fabrication lab, where students can turn design ideas into reality. STEM is becoming a household word, yet the philosophy behind it is more than science, technology, engineering and math.

"Not every kid wants to be a scientist or mathematician or engineer," said Keri Randolph. "We're trying to create self-sufficient learners."

Randoph is the director of learning for the STEM Innovation Hub, which is like, well, another big table. The Hub builds relationships with businesses and educators in 24 regional school districts; they share ideas, best practices, and listen as businesses advise them on the needs they have.

"We try to spread what is happening here around the region," she said.

STEM is not the cure-all; other public schools have equally magical and dynamic classrooms. But there was something at STEM that seemed like it had time-traveled just a little bit, as if all around were glimpses of what future classrooms may look like.

What a world it will be.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.