When Pond Hill Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Christopher Stone founded the CT STEM Academy in Wallingford in 2012, he got a big assist from his state teachers union. The Connecticut Education Association provided a two-year, $10,000 grant to launch his after-school enrichment program, which, over the last five years, has opened the eyes of more than 15,000 students and their families to STEM skills and careers.
Recently, Stone and his colleagues scored another big win for their students when AT&T made a $100,000 contribution to the NEA Foundation to continue supporting the STEM Academy.
“CEA gave us funding to really build our base,” said Stone, thanking CEA President Sheila Cohen and Wallingford Education Association President Louis Faiella for “entertaining my ideas that were really outside the box.”
“Chris is a shining example of Connecticut’s highly qualified, dedicated teachers,” said Cohen. “He has successfully introduced innovations into his classroom as well as strategies that ensure all students achieve at high levels. CEA provided Chris with initial funding because we saw the potential of this program to change the lives of Connecticut students. It’s incredibly gratifying to watch what the CT STEM Academy has become and to see how many students its teachers have been able to positively impact. The CT STEM Academy brings students, teachers, families, and communities together through science, technology, engineering, and math, and it encourages young people who are underrepresented in STEM—students of color, girls, and special education students. It lets them know that STEM is for them too.”
She added, “Chris and his colleagues at the CT STEM Academy exemplify what teachers across Connecticut do every day. They go above and beyond to make sure all students have the opportunities they need to be successful.”
Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, praised teachers—like Stone—for “making connections with students that transform lives.” She also commended CEA for making the initial investment in Stone’s vision. “We wouldn’t be here without the early adopters—people like Sheila Cohen and CEA, who put money on the table.”
Making science education a family affair
A 20-year veteran teacher and the 2013 recipient of CEA’s highest award, the John McCormack Award for Teaching Excellence, as well as NEA’s 2014 Horace Mann Award for teaching excellence, Stone established his innovative enrichment program as a way to deepen students’ knowledge of STEM concepts and promote gender equity, cultural diversity, and direct family involvement in STEM. Importantly, the Academy’s programs engage not only children, but also their parents. This is especially significant for families where parents themselves do not have a strong STEM background.
The program, which is open to everyone and has 50 percent Hispanic enrollment, offers community-based events and activities such as family STEM nights, academic bridge programs for at-risk youth, engineering design challenges, robotics clubs and competitions, guest speakers, and evening, after-school, and summer STEM camps.
“Even from my first years of teaching, I’ve always run afterschool programs,” said Stone. “It’s important to get to know the families of your students and families in the community, because that’s the backbone of education. Teaching STEM in a family environment gives parents side-by-side time with their kids, and it gives me the opportunity to interact with lots of different families from diverse backgrounds.”
Research also shows that when programs engage girls and students of color with STEM at an earlier age, those students are more likely to feel that they too belong in the STEM fields and to envision themselves in professions that they may not have otherwise considered. The Academy provides hands-on science opportunities that children are not always able to experience during the school day, and those activities give students a better idea of how STEM concepts are used in real life.
“Through programs like these, we aim to grow a STEM ecosystem that engages young people and their families from so many different backgrounds in communities across Connecticut and beyond,” said Sanford. “AT&T’s contribution advances our mission of supporting educators who work with their communities to incorporate STEM learning into students’ daily lives.” In addition to the CT STEM Academy, the NEA Foundation will launch major STEM initiatives in Colorado and Tennessee later this year.
John Emra, president of AT&T Connecticut, says that by 2020, there is likely to be a shortage of approximately 40 million high-skilled workers. “The need to get more students involved in STEM is greater now than ever. When AT&T invests in education, we know we will see a return that benefits all of us. The return on this investment is a more educated generation of students, regardless of background, more opportunities for our children, and more homegrown talent like the students served by the CT STEM Academy.”
After the award was announced, students from the CT STEM Academy led student discovery centers where guests could experiment with coding, robotics, forensics, circuit boards, rockets, and more.