Science and Technology Rule in STEM

At Collierville High School’s STEM program, teens own the learning process (and they like it)

L to R front: Sabrina Curley, Dari Doby, Chris Dufour, Nancy Lieberman, Anne Raheem, Drew Van DeVuurst. Back: Carl Bledsoe, Vance Hudson, Roger Li, Gray Yoder

photography by Marci Lambert and Jane Schneider

(page 1 of 2)

Walk into Shelli Brasher’s STEM class at Collierville High School, and you’ll likely be greeted by the whine of table saws and hand drills. On a bright December morning, the room is alive with activity. In one corner, an Indian girl sporting safety glasses drills a hole in her board. Two lanky teenage boys stand nearby at a table saw, taking turns cutting planks of wood.

This class, a mix of sophomores, juniors, and seniors (there are 300 students enrolled in the program), is divided into teams and each group is trying to determine how best to construct a catapult or trebuchet, a sophisticated sling from the Middle Ages. As part of their grade, the team’s apparatus must meet a stringent set of guidelines that demonstrate whether math calculations are sound and physics questions correctly answered. Their catapults are also tested to see how far each shoots, and whether the force of the blow can actually knock down a fabricated wall.  

“These kids are high achievers, they’re not used to not getting it the first time. And they’re competitive, they try to outdo each other,” says Brasher.

Competition plays an active role in the class. Brasher is constantly looking for STEM-related contests her students can enter. The Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation’s call for helicopter designs led to two of her students making the winner’s circle. Sophomore Vance Hudson, walked away with the $1,000 grand prize and a trip to the company’s Connecticut plant, classmate Sabrina Curley placed as a finalist.  

Hands-on projects, like those they tackle in Brasher’s class give students the opportunity to see how science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts come into play to solve real-world problems; skills that educators hope will be transferable to jobs in the workplace.

“If kids are gifted in math and science, it gives many an opportunity to see beyond medicine as a place to use those skills,” says Brasher. “STEM opens doors to anything with a major in science.”


Teacher Shelli Brasher acts as a facilitator,  helping students with their projects.


Interest in STEM growing

Classes like this one have been quietly percolating in other schools around Shelby County for the past two decades. But with the adoption of the Common Core Standards, the state has gotten more interested in ramping up efforts to grow and strengthen STEM offerings.

In September, Governor Bill Haslam officially designated Southwind High School as a STEM Platform School, one of six in the state that will serve as a demonstration site for “incubating, deploying, and sharing innovative and best practices in STEM education in Tennessee.”

As a 1991 graduate of East High School, principal Eric Harris remembers the STEM classes he took as a teen. East was the district’s first high school to be approved to teach a STEM track in the mid-1980s. But Harris says the class was much more theory based then, and their tools were limited to the use of protractors and simple circuit boards.

“Now, it’s more hands-on, the kids build things, they go through the process of failures required to reach success,” he says. “The students learn from their mistakes.” Today, East High offers five engineering tracks that enable teens to hone in on topics like biotech, energy, and civil engineering. About 100 students from across the county also participate in the program through the STEM Virtual School, where classes are held online, coupled with weekly visits to East’s campus for lab time.

The teens’ achievements are being noticed. Last year, East High graduated 12 STEM seniors who received more than $2 million in college scholarships.


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