It’s no secret that the world is becoming more complex and the future will be largely shaped by scientists, engineers and innovators in technology.
That’s why STEM – the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – has rapidly become priority in classrooms across the country as the United States seeks to hold onto its status as a global leader.
This is a lesson well understood by Denise Koontz, a fifth grade teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School. She teaches both science and social studies but it is her approach to teaching science that has earned her a reputation for excellence.
She is one of 10 Texas elementary science and math teachers named as finalists for the 2016 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. One or two finalists from each state will be chosen as winners and will receive $10,000 awards.
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Ironically, Koontz, now a veteran 16-year teacher, never intended to become a science teacher.
When she first applied for a job with the Keller school district, she thought it was to teach language arts.
“They asked me about teaching science,” she says. Despite her lack of experience in that area, she agreed.
Now in her 14th year as a teacher in the Keller school district and her ninth year at Trinity Meadows Intermediate, Koontz could not be more pleased with her decision to take on the challenge of teaching science.
Koontz has developed a passion for teaching science both because of its importance to her students’ future success in careers such as health care and engineering, and to take away the intimidation factor of a subject in school that many students find difficult.
“A lot of students think they aren’t good at science and math,” she says. “I look for ways to engage all my students to enjoy science and realize they are good at it.”
Friend and co-worker Debra Ney, who nominated Koontz for the Presidential Award, said she was so inspired by Koontz’ approach to teaching that she switched from teaching language arts to science.
“In my 15 years in education, I have never worked with a person who gives as much attention to detail and excellence as she does,” says Ney, a sixth grade science teacher at Trinity Meadows.
Koontz’ reputation is as an innovator, who uses hands-on learning and brings in outside experts to add real-life experience to her lessons in areas from life science to Earth and physical science.
She recently hosted a geo-technical engineer, working on the Interstate 35W project, to talk to her students about load-bearing structures to go along with a project on calculating the load for burying a large time capsule for 25 years.
“The kids were so excited,” she says.
A wildlife conservationist and other professionals who use science in their jobs are also on her list of speakers.
Beyond all that, she established a summer science camp for incoming fifth-graders to Trinity Meadows to help instill an appreciation for science and higher level thinking, says Ney, who worked alongside her at the camp.
“I truly was in awe at her ability to make science so inspiring and fun,” Ney says. “She changes the perception of science among the students from thinking science is hard and boring to desiring to one day become scientists.”
Koontz is also the science department head at Trinity Meadows and has led professional development programs for district and regional teachers. In recognition of her skill and dedication, she was chosen the 2013-14 KISD Elementary School Teacher of the Year.
“Mrs. Koontz is the teacher you wish you would have had in school,” says Susan Mackey, Trinity Meadows principal.
Always looking ahead, Koontz is experimenting with her own STEM learning center in her classroom to expand multi-disciplinary instruction and show students how all these subject areas are created.
This center is one of many ways the Keller district is promoting STEM education. While most of the district’s STEM programs are for middle and high school students, Koontz’ learning center and elementary robotics clubs are part of the mix.
Because of the district’s policy of fairness among every campus, STEM programs are prohibitively too expensive for elementary schools, according to Jennifer Fleming, KISD director of guidance and counseling.
At the middle schools, the district is using an outside program call Project Lead the Way (PLTW) to provide STEM instruction that is considered critical to 21st century success. PLTW’s Gateway to Technology program is a middle-school elective that teaches students how technology is used in engineering.
As part of the program, students explore topics such as design modeling, automation and robotics. Other parts of this program delve into forensics and allow students to experience what it is like to be a crime scene investigator, says Benjamin Rundell, the career technology teacher at Keller Middle School who teaches the Gateway program.
“This gives kids experience doing the types of things they would be doing in these types of careers,” Rundell says. “It’s all very hands-on and involves working through challenges.”
One of the challenges is to devise a way to move a 200-pound object a certain distance, Rundell says. Options might include creating an elevator mechanism or a robotic device to solve the challenge.
“The kids are really engaged and rise to the challenge every time,” he says.
This program is also meant to encourage students to consider the STEM course of study in high school, Fleming says. As a result of state law changes, every high school student since 2014-15 has had to choose an “endorsement” as a course of study to follow through high school.
Endorsement choices include arts and humanities; business and industry; health science; public service; and STEM. Students who choose STEM then choose a pathway such as science, technology or engineering and math to coincide with their interests.
“The state’s goal was to create an individual graduation plan for every student to better prepare kids for the workforce and increase college and career readiness,” Fleming says.
The pathway classes can either be taken as electives or to fulfill requirements for core classes. In the engineering pathway of the STEM program, students can choose from classes in aerospace engineering, digital electronics or robotics. Technology pathway students have options such as computer science, web technology and Internet-working.
This approach better helps prepare for the future, Fleming says.
“We offered many of these courses before but now we are giving them a written plan to follow that helps them get ready for college and beyond,” she says.
District Robotics Competition Set for Jan. 28 at HMS
Hillwood Middle School is hosting the 2017 Keller ISD Robotics Competition on Saturday, January 28. Over 125 middle and high school students work in teams to design and build competition robots. This year's challenge involves lifting objects over a fence to score points on the opposing team. Students from grades 7-12 compete. The competition will be held from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Hillwood Middle School campus, located at 8150 Parkwood Hill Boulevard in Fort Worth. Spectators are welcome.