Laing Middle School recognized as one of nation’s top STEM schools

Laing Middle School student Lia Khachatryan works on building a solar charge controller to manage the flow of energy in a solar panel.

— Laing Middle students Lia Khachatryan, Morgan Moriarty and Ashlee Johnston were excited as they explained how they wired battery circuits to power lights attached to story books they made in English class.

The sixth-graders on a recent afternoon also talked about the solar charge controller they’re building and how they’ll use the greenhouses they helped construct for a school-wide aquaponics project that combines the farming of fish and plants in one ecosystem.

“I’m looking forward to finishing building the aquaponics system because I’m interested in how it’s going to look,” Khachatryan said.

Those are just a few of the ways Laing Middle School of Science and Technology is engaging students in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — subjects. The school has been identified as one of the top middle schools in the nation for its interdisciplinary approach to teaching those subjects.

Laing is among three finalists selected from a pool of more than 100 middle schools from across the country competing to receive a STEM Excellence award from the Future Educational Technology Conference, a national event focusing on education technology.

The award recognizes the best elementary, middle and high school STEM programs in the country, said conference and program manager Jennifer Womble. A committee of STEM educators and professionals scored each school based on their interdisciplinary approach to teaching STEM concepts and the impact of those efforts across the greater student body, Womble said.

“We’re extremely thrilled with this recognition,” said Laing Principal Jay Whitehair.

Whitehair along with several teachers will present the school’s approach to STEM learning at the conference in Orlando, Fla., this week. The winners of the STEM awards will be announced Thursday.

The accolade comes less than three years after Laing began including aspects of STEM concepts in all academic curriculum in 2012. The initiative builds off of the school’s initial launch of a science and technology magnet program in 2009.

Whitehair said the magnet program, which the school still offers, provides elements of STEM, such as marine science, forensics and pre-engineering classes, but that the interdisciplinary approach to STEM goes further.

“You’re as likely to see STEM in action in social studies and English language arts at Laing as you would in an engineering or science class,” Whitehair said.

What that means, said Mel Goodwin, Laing’s STEM coach, is that teachers in all subjects focus more on problem-solving and collaboration among students. For example, Goodwin said in the school’s aquaponics project some students may have done research papers on historical irrigation systems in English and studied historical farming techniques in social studies.

“It’s a lot more than designing robots or vehicles,” Goodwin said. “It’s about using the process of engineering to solve any kind of problem, whether it’s a social studies historical problem or a problem in science and math.”

Khachatryan, Moriarty and Johnston all said they like the hands-on learning that STEM-related projects offer.

“I definitely like it because you get to use things,” Johnston said.

“It makes it more unique,” added Moriarty.

Whitehair said the fact that the school is already receiving recognition only a few years into its STEM initiative is a credit to the faculty’s willingness to embrace the concept.

“It’s not easy to change your whole philosophy or way of teaching,” Whitehair said. “You have to take the time up front before anything like this can be successful.”