Dr. Cindy Moss delivers the STEAM keynote address at Adventure Science Center. Metro Middle Schools are in for big changes. Photo by Peter White

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – It’s called STEM or STEAM and its how today’s middle-school kids are getting ready to work the high-paying high-tech jobs that are out there just waiting to be filled.

To that end, Metro schools just signed a five-year contract with Discovery Education to overhaul the curricula in all 33 Metro middle schools. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

“Metro Nashville has a big achievement gap between the rich kids and the poor kids,” says Dr. Cindy Moss. “I personally believe the achievement gap is something we’ve created. It’s really all about an opportunity gap,” she said.

Rich kids get to travel and experience different things during summer and even though Metro Schools doesn’t have the money to take kids places, the digital resources Moss’s company provides, brings the world to them. And that can make a big difference turning kids on and keeping them engaged about learning.

“We go to places like Dasani yogurt. We take them into places they couldn’t go because of labor laws and show them how to make Dasani yogurt. They get to see people doing that really cool job,” Moss told the Tribune.

Moss is Discovery Education’s STEM Boss. She is to teaching what Mohammed Ali was to boxing: she has a big mouth but can back it up. She describes her teaching method as disruptive innovation. It is pretty much the opposite of what most teachers do in their classrooms.

“I believe the pressure of testing has caused people to forget what really matters in education,” she told the Tribune. What matter, she says, is hands-on learning, working in groups to solve real world problems, and kids need to know their teacher believes in them.

Moss did her primary research in North Carolina and did a cross-national study in South Africa and Japan with other scholars who looked at 25 international-normed learning factors.

“We found that in all these school, it didn’t matter if we were in North Carolina, Japan, or South Africa, those three things made the biggest difference on the tests,” Moss discovered.

“For my dissertation I went into classrooms and saw the teachers sitting kids in front of them, having them copy notes, have them memorize things, take multiple choice tests all the time. It was horrible,” she recalls.  So she came up with her own ways of teaching that became the bedrock theory behind Discovery Education’s teaching methods.

Moss started teaching 25 years ago at Independence High School in North Carolina’s Charlotte/Mecklenburg district. She offered to take 100 struggling students to show people her methods would work. The other teachers thought she was crazy but were only too happy to let her have them.

Moss tested them right away. The 15 and 16-year old students were reading at a third and fourth grade level.

“They all were on free or reduced lunch, only one kid had mom and dad together, they had missed 20 days at least the year before, so they had all the factors that to most teachers would indicate that these kids were failures,” Moss said.

Moss wrote some grants to train her students to teach fourth-graders about water. “We started going every two weeks to teach them the science about water and why it really mattered,” Moss recalled.

She realized her students would have to learn 15 new words every twenty minutes if they were going to pass the state language test. “Everybody was convinced I was definitely going to fail,” she said.

But Moss figured out a clever solution that relied on her students’ abilities to solve problems through play and experimentation. She designed a word game sort of like bingo. Every day for ten minutes she would hit a button and two students would be paired with a card that had four phrases using vocabulary words. The students would have to talk with each other for ten minutes about how those phrases fit into some concept or larger context.

“By the in the end of the year every one of my 100 kids made an 85 or better on their state test. They outperformed the honors kids and I won something called the Milken National Educator Award.

Of these 100 kids, 96 finished a four year college the other four finished a two year college. These were kids in 10th grade everybody had already designated throw-away kids,” she said.

Moss says many school districts just pick one school for STEAM formation. Metro has bought Discovery’s science and social studies digital tech books for all 33 Middle Schools.

Twenty-five teachers at each school will go thru 20 days of professional development, and eight teachers will get coaching in their classrooms. Moss said each school will get a Steam family night, so parents can understand more about it and some schools will get 6 hours one Saturday diving into some the high tech careers Moss likes to talk about.

Some resources like digital streaming and Discovery’s tech books can be resources for all Metro k-12 students, not just the middle schools.

For example, Discovery’s math tech book is for 6-12th grades but it’s not designed or meant to be taught like math is traditionally taught.

“It’s not like a textbook where you do the problems on page 84 and then tomorrow night you do the problems on page 88 after we talk about it. That’s a linear process and the old way we taught math,” says Moss.

“We kind of flip that over. We start with some real world 30 second to a minute problem, something they want to solve,” says Moss.

“You were supposed to be home 10 minutes ago. Your mom just texted you. What’s the fastest way to get home? So they are doing geometry. So they then go and they can play and they have all these tools kits to work with.

We don’t teach them the equation first. We give them the problem first. We give them some tools and tell them go to the playground to try and figure it out. After they play a little bit we give them some pieces as they go along,” Moss says.

“If you’re in 8th grade algebra and you missed something that was back in 4th grade, it has all those other resources built in, so you can go back and fill in what you’re missing,” says Moss. The same is true in science and social studies tech books.

“If I’m teaching you in 7th grade but you’re really smart and you’re reading in 10th grade, I can click a button and then you are reading are at 10th grade and if someone next to you is a little behind I can click a button and she gets reading at her level.

“If Spanish is your primary language you can click a button and you can read it in Spanish to get the meaning and then go back to English and have it read to you in English so you can start to work on your fluency.

These resources are amazing. They totally change the way we teach. They can literally personalize every kid’s education,” Moss says. She says when kids have those ‘Wow” moments they get excited about coming to school.

“We want them to be so excited to come to school that they can’t wait and we want them to not want to go home And when the teacher starts seeing that, they become more enthusiastic about their job, and the parents become more enthusiastic about the schools and there will be a ripple effect of positivity.”