Audrey Thill and Kaysen Wright

Audrey Thill and Kaysen Wright learn to use a microscope.

Pinewood Preparatory School in Summerville understands that the future is in STEM. More and more jobs fall into this growing category and it’s important to prepare our kids accordingly. IDEA is an acronym that the school’s staff created in 2015 when they decided to take on STEM education as a formal program to integrate into their regular academics. It stands for Imagine, Design, Experiment and Apply. 

“We had, of course, done special STEM-themed projects in the past, but now that we have adopted IDEA Lab, we are amazed at how our students have flourished in STEM,” Brooks Hearn, director of advancement at Pinewood Preparatory School, says.  

Hearn explains that the reason Pinewood decided to put a newfound focus on STEM education was in response to the upswing in STEM careers. 

“Students get so much exposure to technology and it is always changing,” she says. “It is our responsibility as educators to show students what is out there and give them first-hand experience of what a STEM career would be like.”

And Hearn is seeing the program’s effect on students first-hand. “I just saw a young girl that has since graduated. When she was at Pinewood, she was interested in our coding and cyber program. She ended up doing robotics, which not many girls do. Now she is majoring in engineering in college,” says Hearn. 

The coding and cyber program, along with the robotics team, are two of the many special enrichment activities that the students can participate in as extracurricular, but the main IDEA Lab academics are integrated into the core classes. 

The upper school consists of middle and high school students. Liz Lemons, IDEA lab facilitator and robotics coach for Upper School, says that some of the more notable projects that students completed were with MaKey Makey, MakerSpace and their work on the 3D printer. 

MaKey Makey is an electronic invention tool that turns any conductive object into a keyboard interactive. “Students create endless possibilities with simple supplies like cardboard, tin foil and tape,” Lemons explains.

MakerSpace allows students to be creative and use tools to build whatever they want — “within reason,” Lemons admits. “To name a few projects, there was the spice rack, step stool, side tables, bookshelves, coat racks and even carved gaming tools.” 

As for the 3D printer, Lemons says, “The 3D printer really intrigues students watching something being made from the bottom up.” She says that the robotics team uses it the most for parts and place markers.

The Pinewood robotics team also participates in the FIRST LEGO League competition every year. In light of the “Into Orbit” theme, the team created an “AroMask,” which is a sleep mask combining aromatherapy and augmented reality to help astronauts sleep. “The students researched and designed the project to share with as many people as possible as well as formally presented the invention at the competition,” Lemons explains. 

Other enrichment activities include the recycling club and the sustainable food collective. These activities directly help the school as students in the recycling club collect recyclables from around the school and the sustainable food collective works to provide sustainable food items in the lunch program. 

High school students also complete Capstone projects, which involve an improvement to their immediate environment. Some of the projects in the past have included batting helmet racks, art display cases, a refurbished rolling library cart, a 3D model of the school and repaired furniture in the senior lounge. 

Stephanie Klixbull, who teaches IDEA Lab to the lower school students and heads up their robotics team, says that she finds STEM education to be important because it gives students a glimpse into the reality of just how many different engineering careers are out there. “For example, I teach an electrical unit to give students a perspective of what roles an electrical engineer would have.”

Klixbull has first-hand knowledge of how hands-on projects in lower school can mold future scientists. 

“When I was in elementary school, my favorite class was science. My favorite teacher was my fifth-grade teacher. He had us build hot-air balloons using tissue paper and an egg-drop challenge from the school roof. My fifth-grade teacher was using design challenges to teach us about science. At the time, I did not know this, but now looking back this is why I fell in love with science,” says Klixbull. “These activities are what children remember in school. Students do not remember the quizzes and homework assignments. They remember the moments that they were given the opportunity to create their own inventions in class and then be able to test out their ideas.”

At the International STEM Education Association Conference in 2018, Klixbull presented her early childhood STEM curriculum called Fairy-Tale Problems, in which the students solve the problems of their favorite princes and princesses with gadgets that they design. She won the Max E. Lundquest Rising Star STEM Educator Award. In March, she was named the South Carolina Independent School Association Teacher of the Year. 


Kids at Pinewood Preparatory School in Summerville learning about the hydrotower.

“I know STEM education makes a difference in children's lives. Within the last decade, educators from across the United States are observing the achievements in learning from hands-on activities,” Klixbull says. “Every year, there is an increase in the job field for computer scientists and engineers. There is a rise for STEM field jobs and as educators, it is our job to make sure our students are ready for it.”


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