Pouring on the STEAM

Cullman County middle school teachers bring career tech to the classroom

Sara LeCroy talks to teachers about career technology for classrooms on Tuesday morning. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Given the demands of the modern career field, a growing number of educators consider early exposure to opportunities in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, or STEAM, to be of increasing importance. A group of Cullman County middle school teachers is taking that concern to heart and spending this week learning how to introduce career tech to 8th graders within their own schools. 

About a dozen county teachers, joined by teachers from Jefferson County and the Oxford City system, are taking part in a 40-hour course led by staff from We Build It Better (WBIB). The organization’s website says that it seeks to transform the classroom into a “center for invention and innovation.” 

“This is the only program I know where you learn about screwdrivers, and you learn about computer programming all in the same class,” said Sara LeCroy, one of two WBIB instructors leading this week’s training event. “You’re not going to find another program around that does that.” 

According to the organization, “We Build It Better packages workforce concepts and skill-building activities together in a unique learning experience. The 18-week (student) program begins with the importance of precision and accuracy, (and) progresses to design and 3D printing, hand and power tools, electricity and fiber optics, programming and coding, business concepts, marketing and leadership principles. The interconnecting kits provide students with the knowledge and skills to invent or innovate a product of their own.” 

The program is in use by at least eight systems across the state, as well as systems in Oregon, Ohio and California, according to WBIB instructor Robin Fenton. 

“We’re really excited, because this is really cutting edge for Alabama and the United States,” said County School Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette. “And for Cullman County to be on the front end of it, we’re excited about that, for sure.” 

LeCroy complemented the teachers in attendance, telling Barnette, “They’re not just sitting here and being passive learners. They’re definitely being active learners, so kudos to your teachers.” 

WBIB partners with the State of Alabama, aircraft manufacturer Airbus, Snap-On Tools, Amazon Web Services, architecture firm Mott MacDonald and the Alabama Power Foundation. 

Fenton said, “That says a lot for our state, of the backing and where they want the students in our school systems to get in the future, and what to achieve.” 

Snap-On Tools provides a large rolling tool chest that contains all the tools and tech components needed for the 18-week student course. 

Snap-On representative Jeff Law told The Tribune, “We are tremendously involved with secondary, post-secondary education. We Build It Better came and said, before it was even We Build It Better — when it was just a concept — ‘This is what we want to do,’ and Snap-On said, ‘We’re in.’ 

“You can take professional quality tools and introduce it to students in the 8th and 9th grades, so that they appreciate the difference in tools, and they can at that point begin to develop their mindset of ‘Gee, I’d like to do this.’ You know, the earlier you get anyone, the easier it is to develop that interest as they look forward.” 

County School Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette said, “What is exciting for me is that the skills that we probably learned from our parents, our grandparents, the kids are not necessarily getting, all the kids are not getting. So we’re going to teach them those concepts, but we’re going to bridge it to technology: the 3D printer and all the other things. So we’re really excited.  

“I believe the kids are going to leave our 8th grade, and they’re going to better know where they want to go. If they want to go into a career technology field, great–if they want to get ready to go to college or something that way, great. But this is going to give them a head start.” 

Law concluded, “And this is exciting stuff. It’s been developed in a way that is — I haven’t seen it done this way before. I’ve had 35 years (with Snap-On); this is the most fun I’ve had with anything I’ve done, period!” 

Snap-On Tools representative Jeff Law and Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette with a specially designed Snap-On classroom tool chest. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune) 

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W.C. Mann