Students gain interest in science and engineering with online teaching tool

Hannah Strobl, left, and Rijil Varghese use computers in their classroom Monday, December 14, 2015 at Ooltewah Middle School.

Hannah Strobl likes animals and dreams of becoming a veterinarian, and on Monday she was clicking through a specialized online STEM teaching tool at a snappy pace.

"I like that it teaches you more about science, social studies and reading," said the 12-year-old Ooltewah Middle School student about the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) training program called Learning Blade.

photo Henrik May, Aubrey Moore, Noah Palmer and Micaiah Pearson, from left, work on their computers Monday, December 14, 2015 at Ooltewah Middle School.

State officials viewed Hannah and her classmates as they took part in a class at Ooltewah, hopeful that Learning Blade will help in the effort to make students more interested in growing science and engineering fields.

"It's where the jobs are," said Dr. Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Learning Blade was developed by Chattanooga-based Thinking Media, and the computer-based program that uses elements of gaming is now in Tennessee's middle schools as well as in 21 other states.

Sheila Boyington, a co-founder of Thinking Media with husband Dane, said two more states are considering Learning Blade.

"It's meeting a need," she said about the program that's been in Tennessee middle schools for two years. "The early numbers show a tremendous return on investment."

Boyington said 70 percent of participating students indicate they learn about new careers. Learning Blade students are 37 percent more likely to consider a STEM career, she said.

Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, who chairs the Learning Blade advisory board, said STEM education is critical to the nation's competitiveness.

"It's where technology meets education" as well as where students themselves are on the learning curve, he said.

photo Dr. Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, left, talks with Ooltewah Middle School principal Chrissy Easterly, center, Monday, December 14, 2015 at Ooltewah Middle School.

A new report released this week by business and education leaders painted a sobering picture of the skills gap in Hamilton County. The coalition of business, foundation and education groups have set a goal of raising the number of residents with post-secondary credentials from 38 percent to 75 percent by 2025.

Airhart said there's "a great need" by companies in Tennessee for people with STEM skills. She likes the individualized approach used by Learning Blade.

"All the kids are very engaged," she said as the Ooltewah students each worked on their own computers, adding that a "personalized learning task force" is slated to convene soon at the state level.

Ooltewah Middle Principal Chrissy Easterly said students rotate through Learning Blade and classes are kept at fewer than 20 youngsters.

"They work at their own level," she said.

Wes Hall, the director of the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, said getting middle school-age students interested in the fields is a key. Students who are reached in middle school take that interest with them to high school, he said.

The Boyingtons already have built a successful online teaching and testing program called "KeyTrain," which they sold to ACT Inc. about five years ago.

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.