With science mentoring competition win, Indy hopes to inspire

PHOTO: Scott Eliott
Harshman Middle School is one of five schools in IPS using Project Lead the Way. The program will expand to as many as 20 more schools next year.

As business and school district leaders wrapped up a big announcement today in Hashman Middle School’s library  — national support for science and math mentoring in Indianapolis — just the sort of excitement they hoped to generate was taking place down the hall.

A group of seventh grade would-be engineers were competing to build the best ping-pong paddle out of popsicle sticks and tape. They were one class of teacher Tabatha Briones’ 160 engineering students at Indianapolis Public Schools’ science and math magnet middle school.

Ever four to six weeks, the kids plot, draw and then build something — a rubber band car or a popsicle stick bridge, for example — in hopes their models will earn accolades as either the best performer or most stylish design.

“Each project is completely different,” Briones said. “But anytime I do any project, I do a competition.”

Back down the hall, the adults asked: can the sort of enthusiasm evident in Briones’ classroom be spread to other students? Can it be sustained so that students go on to college to major in scientific fields that are badly shorthanded? Is there a way to help today’s kids someday benefit both the state’s economy and their own economic well-being by landing jobs in fields based in science, technology, engineering and math?

“Simply put, we do not have enough individuals with backgrounds in STEM fields,” said Jason Kloth, Indianapolis’ deputy mayor for education. “There is a disconnect between students interested in STEM and STEM professionals.”

A coalition of Indianapolis civic, business and community leaders hopes expanded mentoring can be part of the answer.

Simon Rhodes, dean of the School of Science at IUPUI, hails a new mentoring program as IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee looks on. (Scott Elliott)
Simon Rhodes, dean of the School of Science at IUPUI, hails a new mentoring program as IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee looks on. (Scott Elliott)

Their proposal on Tuesday beat out plans from 45 other cities to earn a share of $1 million in privately raised dollars through the US2020 City Competition. It was one of just seven cities picked to earn financial, consulting and staff support to launch its plan.

Led by the TechPoint Foundation for Youth, a philanthropic group that promotes STEM programs, more than 40 community partners backed the idea.

Among them were major science-based companies like Eli Lilly and Company, Roche Diagnostics and Cummins, which pledged to connect STEM mentors with students from nine schools in IPS, Lawrence and Pike townships, along with four Boys & Girls Clubs.

For IPS, the plan is to expand STEM from magnet programs at Harshman and Arsenal Tech High School to create a pipeline from lower grades by adding new STEM instruction at School 14 and School 15. Mentoring will come in the form of school day, after school and summer enrichment programs.

“This provides us an opportunity to put caring adults in front of our students and enhance STEM in our classrooms,” IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “We know that by sixth grade our high income students have 6,000 more hours of enrichment activities compared their low income peers. This is an opportunity for them to become interested in STEM fields and improve performance in those content areas.”

For the participating companies, mentoring in STEM is not just good citizenship, it’s good business, said Rob Smith, president of the Lilly Foundation.

“Our employees, particularly younger employees, are interested in more than just a paycheck,” he said. “They want to feel they are connected to something bigger than themselves. We have found when we provide those opportunities, like STEM volunteers through this program, our employees feel more connected to the community and they are better employees.”

Shelby Waugh (left) and Dalton Dean try to play ping pong with the paddles they designed. (Scott Elliott)
Shelby Waugh (left) and Dalton Dean try to play ping pong with the paddles they designed. (Scott Elliott)

Can a popsicle stick ping-pong paddle change the world?

Maybe so, if it’s a first a step for middle schoolers interested in engineering to understand the big concepts that engineers use to make the products that and build the structures that change people’s lives.

In this case, the concept Harshman’s engineering class aimed to impart was Newton’s laws of motion, said seventh grader Dalton Dean as he and Brendan Delay added tape to their paddle.

The first law is inertia, Dean said: an object at rest, like a ping-pong ball, will remain so until acted on by an outside force, like a paddle. The force exerted to ball is the second law. That force equals the mass of the object multiplied by its acceleration. Finally, the third law of action vs. reaction says the ball will put equal force on the paddle as it is struck.

When their paddle hits the ball, Dean said, “It goes through all of the stages at once.”

As Dean explained, Delay stood by, eager to interject. But when his partner finished, he simply nodded.

“Good explanation,” he said, looking at Dean. “I couldn’t have said it better.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”