The wind swirled as the black helicopter came flying in over the Dunwoody High School football field in Atlanta. It touched down to cheers and the brass notes of a marching band. DeKalb County School District superintendent R. Stephen Green emerged, having helped pilot the landing after a short lesson.
Green was on the field in November to announce a new project: Students at two high schools—Dunwoody and McNair—would be building a street-legal car from the ground up as part of a wider effort to boost STEM experiences in the district. The car, a replica of a Ford 1965 Daytona Coupe, was donated by the Ford Motor Company and delivered in 30 boxes, and students would build the automobile, bolt by bolt. As Green knows from flying the opening-ceremony helicopter, “doing” is a lot more interesting that watching.
“The intent is to get students excited about STEM and projects that will engage them,” says Green. His enthusiasm, both for the helicopter ride and the Daytona Coupe project, has buoyed educators and students in the district.
“There are different ways to inspire students to learn,” Green adds, “especially those who may not be learners in the traditional manner.”
The 101,000-student DeKalb, Georgia, district is pushing forward with a widespread STEM initiative, an effort that predates Green’s time in the district. It was kicked off during the 2012–13 academic year with 12 schools, as part of a larger $34 million Race to the Top grant.
But under Green’s leadership, which began in July 2015, the STEM project has expanded. It now includes 96 district schools with plans that range from aquaponics to coding and robotics. Many of the projects are done in conjunction with industry partners.
“If you build the excitement and relevance on the front end, then you can introduce content-rich material,” Green explains. “But if you start with algorithms and the Pythagorean theorem, some students have lost interest from the very beginning.”