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STRIVE Program Opens STEM Opportunities for Arkansas STEM Teacher

Teacher Amanda Smith took a field trip to Contractor's Truss System, Inc. in Cotter as part of the Arkansas STRIVE program.
Teacher Amanda Smith took a field trip to Contractor's Truss System, Inc. in Cotter as part of the Arkansas STRIVE program.

As a science teacher at Salem High School, Amanda Smith said it can often be challenging to find engaging lessons and assignments in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) that truly capture her students’ attention.

That was before the Hardy native found the STRIVE program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which stands for Arkansas Teachers Collaborating to build a diverse workforce. The paid professional development program for Arkansas middle school and high school STEM teachers provides opportunities for teachers to become immersed in an organization for a short period during the summer to see first-hand how diverse and far-reaching the skills they teach in their classroom relate to the real world.

“The program places middle and high school Arkansas STEM teachers in businesses for a four-week internship to increase teacher and student awareness of the jobs in their community that use STEM skills,” said Dr. Mark Baillie, STRIVE program director. “It helps teachers answer the question: ‘Why do I need to learn this!’ or ‘When will I ever use this?’ for all types of disciplines while connecting it to many different career paths.”

Teachers bring what they learn during their summer placements back into their classrooms, promoting approaches such as science inquiry and problem-based learning. Students learn about the diversity of jobs requiring STEM skills and the skills they will need to work in those jobs.

A teacher of 19 years, Smith said she first became interested in the STRIVE program six years ago and thought it would be great to show her students the different types of STEM careers that are available in Arkansas.

“I work in a very small rural farming community, and I wanted my students to see past where we lived to statewide opportunities that are available for them,” Smith said. “I also wanted to bring back hands-on lessons for my students to engage them in science so they would be excited about the content we were covering. STRIVE seemed to be the best way to bring knowledge of STEM jobs and job opportunities into my classroom. It completely changed the way I taught in my classroom.”

Smith worked with Sara Seagraves, education and outreach biologist, during her first STRIVE placement at Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery.

“That was a lot of fun as a teacher,” Smith said. “We got to canoe up and down the river collecting native species of plants and developed lesson plans about the native species of plants for Sara to use when students came to visit the hatchery. I can take that information back to my students, and I got to learn about the different STEM jobs at the hatchery and what opportunities are available for my students if they want to work at the hatchery.”

Over the years, Smith’s STRIVE internships have also taken her to work at AZ Industries in Highland, the Spring River Innovation Hub in Cherokee Village, the Norfork National Fish Hatchery, and Ridout Lumber in Batesville.

Smith’s STRIVE connections have led to interesting opportunities for her and her students. Doug Tharp, one of Smith’s co-workers at Ridout Lumber, served as a guest speaker for her students in Salem.

“He taught them how to use a tape measure to make measurements for home projects,” Smith said. “He also showed them what jobs are available at Ridout, what STEM skills are needed, and what the pay scale is for those jobs. The students just loved it.”

This connection also came in handy when Smith had her students participating in the Gingerbread House STEM Challenge, an engineering assignment that challenges students to build a gingerbread house that meets specific design requirements. During the challenge, she noticed that her students were having trouble communicating with each other and working well on teams.

Afton Yount, marketing coordinator at Ridout Lumber, and Richard Kapp, area operation manager at Ridout Lumber, visited Salem High School in May to teach students 6 Sigma. Developed by Motorola in the 1980s, Six Sigma is a method that provides organizations tools to improve the capability of their business processes.

“They met with 120 students and talked about STEM skills and job skills and communicating,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, all the students got a white belt certification for Six Sigma. They were able to make a difference for my students. This will make my students competitive and be able to apply those skills in future jobs. All of this came about throughout the STRIVE experience. These businesses want to support our science students and having that personal connection made it possible.”

Currently in her sixth year in STRIVE, Smith has grown from mentee to mentor and is now using her advanced knowledge of the program to help other STRIVE participants.

“As an advisor, we are mentoring the participants, helping deliver the professional development lessons to the teachers, as well as helping them with their placements and to develop a lesson plan to take back to their classrooms,” Smith said. “Before STRIVE, I didn’t introduce STEM jobs in the classroom. I teach mostly 7th grade, and I think it is important for them to see what jobs are out there and what it takes for them to get those jobs.”