MOUNT STERLING, Ill. — Nicole Genenbacher turned the tables Thursday, shifting from the front of the classroom to being in the classroom.
The St. Peter teacher joined educators from 13 West-Central Illinois schools and districts as Dot Foods launched Focus on STEM.
The initiative will provide five teacher training sessions and $100,000 in grants to start for the 2023-24 year to help schools build science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, programs — with a goal of making sure West-Central Illinois graduates are ready for STEM career opportunities across the country and at Dot Foods.
LEGO educational technologist Colleen Cannon-Ruffo helped teachers build confidence and competence as they tried their hand at hands-on STEM learning.
“I am very excited to be the student for the day, rather than the teacher,” said Genenbacher, the STEM teacher for St. Peter students. “It is not every day that I get the opportunity to learn something new, and Dot is providing that opportunity for me.”
It’s also not every day that Genenbacher works with another teacher to build “an expression of joy” using LEGO pieces and hardware, with motors lifting “arms” to celebrate scoring a goal.
“We are having fun,” Genenbacher said.
“It matches up with a lot of concepts that I already teach. I can build this right into my curriculum,” said Payson teacher Dawn Lepper who will be teaching new STEM classes next year. “It’s just teaching it in a whole new way — and a way that’s a lot of fun for the kids and engaging.”
Educators from Payson, Quincy Public Schools, Southeastern, Central, Meredosia-Chambersburg, Griggsville-Perry, Dallas City, St. Mary, Brown County, Franklin, Pikeland, Beardstown and St. Peter partnered to work on projects assigned by Cannon-Ruffo, who sported a T-shirt with the message “learning through play.”
“What they need to see is the possibility,” Cannon-Ruffo said. “This is an innovative way for students to learn but doable. We can use these resources to apply our learning of science, our learning of math and those concepts to hands-on activities.”
Dot launched the program in conjunction with the Learning Technology Center of Illinois, which supports all public K-12 districts, schools and educators through technology initiatives, services and professional learning opportunities.
Suzy Parn, director of Dot’s charitable corporate committee, said the program provides another way for the company to support area schools.
The committee spent a year researching how best to support STEM education in area districts and found schools needed funding to buy supplies and access to teacher training.
Funding will be tied to each training session for the teachers and administrators, “so we’re helping them be able to afford to do it,” Parn said. “What we would really like to see is the schools grow the program so that all the kids in the region are really getting STEM education.”
Dot knows it will need people in the future with those skills — and so will other employers in the region.
“For our kids, this ties into their future. So many of these things relate to real world jobs now,” said Pikeland Community School Principal Jon Frieden, who admitted it took a few tries to program his first project the way he wanted. “We’re covering math, science, engineering – so many lessons that can be learned while they’re having fun doing it.”
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