Real STEM: Immersed in a Healthy Environment

January 30, 2015

by Brandon Wilkerson

The following education update is a vignette on one of the Race to the Top Innovation Fund grantees. It is an excerpt from the full Innovation Fund Report that will include a similar vignette on each grantee.

Students sit in small groups, engaged in round table discussions of their experiments. The current lesson covers rocketry. The students are eager to test their theories on the optimal shape for the miniature rocket’s nose cone. They have high expectations for the first launch, which requires them to consider both the apex of flight and the chance for a safe, controlled descent. The designs incorporate power and practicality in equal measure. Real STEM encourages the students’ creativity, and often the learning, like the much-discussed rocket, is self-propelled.

Statesboro High School’s counselors recommended the class to some students, though most learned of it through friends or teachers. The participants represent a cross-section of the student body seldom seen in one class – freshmen through seniors can enroll in Real STEM to learn the unique curriculum centered around energy and the environment. For a community on the coastal plains of Georgia, the students can find these real-world subjects and their impacts just outside the school’s doors.

As the class nears its end, the instructor dims the lights for a slideshow depicting the students’ recent field study. In the pictures, students wear tall green hip-waders as they brave the chilly waters of a Bulloch County creek. They collect water and leaf samples to test the effects of fertilizer runoff from nearby sports fields. The experiment seeks evidence of hypertrophication – a word derived from ancient Greek, meaning “overgrowth.” Hypertrophication of algae can disastrously upset the balance in an ecosystem. The students continue to test the leaf samples carefully, learning how best to act on their real-world findings. A well-functioning ecosystem requires healthy, controlled growth. In a parallel to the lessons, the Real STEM classroom displays its own healthy growth, as the process of education nourishes young minds.

Where it all Started

The Real STEM program began in the 2012-13 school year, following a $700,000 award from the Innovation Fund to the Georgia Southern University Research & Service Foundation. Georgia Southern University partnered with seven research institutes and eight school districts in southeast Georgia (Bulloch, Brantley, Bryan, Burke, Camden, Candler, Liberty, and Ware) to develop problem-based, hands-on STEM learning modules that explore the environmental and energy issues facing the state’s lower coastal plain. The program also aims to reignite student interest in STEM, boost STEM achievement, and promote STEM careers.

Research Partners

  • Skidaway Institute of Oceanography
  • UGA Marine Institute at Sapelo Island
  • Gray’s Reef Marine Sanctuary
  • Marine Education Center and Aquarium
  • Magnolia Midlands Youth Science Technology Center
  • Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy
  • Ossabaw Island Education Alliance

Program Overview

Real STEM seeks to accomplish the following:

  • Goal 1: Engage students with the challenges of environment and energy impacting Georgia’s coastal plain communities.
  • Goal 2: Increase student interest in STEM subjects and careers.
  • Goal 3: Develop STEM-literate citizens who make informed decisions on issues affecting their lives.[1]

The Real STEM program focuses on the lower coastal plain of Georgia, a region consisting primarily of rural and low socio-economic status counties. Implementation occurred in grades 9 through 12 in the Bulloch County, Brantley County, Bryan County, Burke County, Camden County, Camden County, and Ware County districts, potentially reaching thousands of students in schools that have historically failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress. This region allows an intersection of demographic populations underrepresented in STEM fields and an environment rich in field research opportunities. The area features coastal barrier islands, native pine forests, and extensive wetlands, including tidal marshes and swamps. It faces the ecological issues of biodiversity loss, drought, and contamination, all entailing STEM-oriented challenges for the community.

The program utilizes three teams for implementation. Team members are not necessarily exclusive to one team. Team 1, made up of research scientists, college-level STEM educators, and master high school teachers, identify relevant STEM concepts underlying issues in the coastal plain. These concepts inform the Real STEM science modules. Team 2, made up of STEM educators, master teachers, and the program coordinator, transition the concepts to an appropriate level for high school students. Team 3, made up of the program coordinator and a school’s professional learning community (PLC), develop the lessons and assessments that encompass real-world problem-based and place-based learning. The PLCs are interdisciplinary units that allow teachers to collaborate and provide content and pedagogical support to one another. Team 3 then implements the lessons in their respective high schools and promotes the program to students. 

As a result of this planning process, students enjoy hands-on ecological field visits to local sites, visits to research institutes, and in-class virtual presentations by scientists, events that usually occur every month. Lessons require the students to utilize scientific design, engineering design, data analysis, and quantitative reasoning in problem solving. Additionally, the program confers advantages to teachers involved in the PLCs. They have the opportunity to attend a one-week summer field campaign at research institute partners, gaining professional knowledge and skills to apply in the classroom.


For high school level programs, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) administers the Applied Learning Student Questionnaire (ALSQ), an instrument designed to measure growth in student problem solving, communication skills, self‐management, and engagement. The 2013-14 results indicated a statistically significant rise, from pre- to post-program, in Intrinsic Motivation and Intent to Persist (i.e., the student aspires to pursue additional education and a career in STEM). More specifically:

  • Participants made particularly strong gains in Intrinsic Motivation. Before the program, approximately 51% of participants agreed that it was important to learn what the program was teaching. Following the program, that percentage rose to 76%.
  • The percentage of students interested in working in a STEM field also increased. Before the program, 40% of students agreed that they were considering a career in STEM. After the program, the percentage rose to 53%.
  • Overall, 94% of students rated the program as good or excellent.


Real STEM served 300 students during the 2013-14 school year. Students demonstrated strong attendance numbers in the program, with 98% daily attendance average across all schools. Additionally, 100% of enrollees completed the program during the school year, with zero suspensions. However, the program reported a lack of strong data related to student learning. It anticipates measuring positive effects in ensuing years, after teachers gain confidence in presenting problem- and place-based research experiences.

To improve cross-site data collection for outcomes in subsequent years, the Real STEM management team identified specific reasoning skills for 2014-15 outcome measurement – scientific reasoning, engineering design reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. The team designed an assessment that will be administered for all participants going forward.[2]


Real STEM delivers problem-based instruction on environmental and energy issues with immediate practical application to the program’s surrounding region. Students learn both in the classroom and in the field, absorbing concepts identified by professional scientists and college-level educators. The participating faculty also gain support, skills development, and opportunities for collaboration through the PLCs and the program’s links to institutes of higher learning and research sites. In December 2014, the program won a $200,000 scaling grant from the Innovation Fund. Georgia Southern University will use the new grant to expand, over a two-year period, into as many as five new school districts, with Henry County and Fulton County being likely additions. To facilitate the expansion, the program will partner with Mercer University in the Macon and Atlanta areas. 

Program Takeaways

Promising Practice

  • The program engages students in place-based problem solving that links STEM learning to the recognizable needs of their home region.
  • It facilitates partnerships within the school (through the PLCs) and with outside entities (research institutes and colleges) to ensure innovation, collaboration, and support.

Lessons Learned

  • The program’s leadership recognized the need for better student outcome measures. Following consultations with evaluators, the program will include a common assessment instrument in the future.
  • Clear expectations regarding the role of the PLCs should be consistently implemented across sites, which may require monitoring and reporting requirements.


[1] Real STEM Evaluation Report, October 2013 – May 2014

[2] Real STEM End-of-Year Report 2013-2014