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Avoca Elementary School teachers awarded NEA Fall Student Achievement Grant
Gathering STEAM

Avoca Elementary School teachers awarded NEA Fall Student Achievement Grant


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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Steam. What picture forms in your mind when thinking about it? A whistling tea kettle? An old locomotive belching smoke?

How about a group of students gathered to improve their understanding of science, technology, engineering, the arts and math?

The majority of people would probably see one of the former, but the teachers at Avoca Elementary School have the latter on their minds since winning a $5,000 Gather STEAM grant from the National Education Association earlier this year. The grant will be used to create a makerspace in the school’s former computer lab.

A makerspace can be anything from a repurposed book cart filled with arts and crafts supplies to a table in a corner set out with LEGOs to a full blown lab with 3D printers, laser cutters and hand tools.

Principal Vonda Beavers said they haven’t decided on everything that will be in the space so they are asking the kids for ideas.

“The space is for the students to work on projects that interest them,” Beavers said. “So it’s important that we have their input. One student brought us the idea of using Legos in the makerspace. So I asked him to draw up a plan, create a proposal and come and talk to me. He had to use his communication skills and pitch his idea to me. He was successful so we are going to use a part of the grant to make a Lego wall.”

Tracy Irvin, a second-grade math teacher, said parents shouldn’t be concerned that the children will sacrifice learning for play.

“We need to change the thinking lens,” she said. “The use of Legos incorporates math and engineering. So instead of students being told what to do they might be asked how or what they can create. It’s a shift. It causes the kids to think and problem-solve. It also teaches them that they don’t have to be right all the time. This kind of learning incorporates the students making a mistake, being wrong, talking to each other and finding out what works. It’s what they’ll do in real-life situations so it’s not about memorizing facts—it’s about thinking—really thinking.”

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Avoca’s Response to Intervention [RTI] teacher Cathy Bryant agreed.

“Tracy is the curriculum and standards expert, Bill [O’Dell, the computer lab educational assistant] is wonderful with support and getting things done with building and helping the kids with the computers,” she said. “I see every child in the school. Some need help with reading or math and go to an intervention group, others go to support or enrichment classes. We’ve discovered that all of our students need opportunities to problem-solve and use higher order thinking skills so having the makerspace is an opportunity for all the kids to participate.

Children of all ages use computers in their daily lives and O’Dell said teaching them to create their own computer game is like teaching them a foreign language.

“They have to learn algorithm programs and conditional statements to make the coding work,” he said. “At the kindergarten level, they learn to manipulate arrows in the program they design. It’s really pretty easy for them—it’s computer science at a very basic level.”

Eight-year-old Gracen Clark, who just began coding last week, said she’s excited about the makerspace.

“I made this,” the youngster said pointing at the game she created on the tablet. “It’s doing what I told it to do. It’s fun—I like it.”

Beavers said Gracen caught on to coding very quickly.

“That’s what we’re seeing,” she said. “They have technology in their hands every day so they aren’t intimidated by it. We are simply teaching them how and why the games work and how they can create those types of programs themselves. That’s why we’re so excited about the makerspace. Every student has used a gaming system—with the kids using things like that on a daily basis we need to change the way we teach and the makerspace will help us do just that.”

For more information, call the school at 423-652-9445 or email Beavers at

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