Kendall Nicholson, when talking about STEM education, says that he “likes to throw an ‘A’ in there, for ‘Art or Aesthetic,’ to make it STEAM,” a common edit being made these days.
However you spell it out, Nicholson, the sole technology teacher for Franklin City Public Schools, may be onto something in the classroom. In February, this teacher from a small city in Virginia’s Tidewater region, was named the winner in the educator category of Apps4VA HAC4EDU Challenge.
Apps4VA is an innovative approach to analyzing the commonwealth’s education data (which I wrote about here this past December). Let’s face it, education data isn’t as sexy as Wall Street futures or consumer buying habits. This private-public partnership between the Virginia Department of Education and the Center for Innovative Technology puts state education data sets at developers and students’ disposal and asks them to come up with apps that solve real problems. There’s a prize, of course. More importantly, though, it’s an open source, entrepreneurial approach to big data in education and a way to attract tech talent to a pressing problem that affects millions of children.
High stakes testing in the nation’s public schools and the accompanying data are likely here to stay. Teachers, school districts, students, and parents have begun to take the reality of these evaluations in stride, as just another part of going to school.
“We test day in, and day out,” Nicholson says. “I hate to say that, but that’s just the reality of the way our school system works. It’s just the way assessment is moving in education: it’s no good if your students don’t test well. Our kids are really acclimated to the idea of the VaDE [Virginia Department of Education] and what the needs of students across the state of Virginia…I guess I can say across the United States, and how important this education is and obtaining these goals and standards are.”
Franklin City is one of the smallest school districts in Virginia, with just over 300 students enrolled in its high school. It’s also a Title I school district. Nicholson was recognized in the educator category for guiding all fifteen of his students through the process of accessing the data available of the Apps4VA site, and then meeting the requirements of the competition in way that was engaging and meaningful for his students. Students were not required to code, only to conceive of creative applications for the data.
“When I initially introduced the project, I’ll just be frank,” Nicholson says, laughing, “they [his students] were like, ‘Whoa this is so much! Can we really do all this?’”
Nicholson differentiated his instruction, helping students choose data sets and conceive of apps that they could successfully complete. Ultimately four students submitted their Apps4VA projects. The rest of class completed, what Nicholson calls, Apps4theGap: applications that covered needs that may have been overlooked by the parameters of the project.
One student envisioned at application called “Testy,” which targeted certain core competencies students were failing and provided remedial games and practice. The double entendre of the apps name, Nicholson admitted, wasn’t lost on him. He laughs it off, as any high school teacher has to, from time to time.
As he describes the students who entered their projects into the Apps4VA competition, you can hear the pride in his voice. One of the apps, “Parent Talk,” used dropout rate data sets to target parents of children at risk for leaving school. The student envisions being able to provide articles, advice, resources, and a forum for parents. Another app, “Future School,” used a wide range of data sets and presented them to parents in the process of moving.
“He [the student] reasoned that this a big thing when families move, the school district,” Nicholson says. “He took this amalgamation of student data so parents knew about the school they were choosing. I thought it was a great. Even better than something like Great Schools, which just gives you a number based on parent reviews.”
Nicholson received the educator award because of how creatively and thoughtfully he presented the project to each student, transforming something that was at once daunting and onerous (who likes test data?), into something engaging and fun.
“One of the things I liked most about this is that it caused my kids to synthesize information,” he says. “Not only did they have to look at the data sets and gain some knowledge, but they had to comprehend what they were reading. And, then, they had to figure out how the information could be applied in a real life situation and analyze it. It filled almost all of Blooms Taxonomy because when they finished they had to evaluate if it was legitimate or not.”
That ‘A for Aesthetic,’ transforming STEM to STEAM, Nicholson explains it as the ability to transfer skills from one problem to another, to see the details and the big picture, and to work collaboratively and meet a goal.