Carrie Casey

Elementary school teacher Carrie Casey has immersed herself in all subjects technical in her newest role as a first-grade teacher at the School of Engineering and Arts, a 450-student K-5 STEM-focused magnet school in the Robbinsdale School District.

Over the past decade, Casey has taught several grades of elementary students in the Robbinsdale School District, and has incorporated Junior Achievement into her curriculum. She was named the 2011-2012 JAUM Teacher of the Year for her enthusiastic support of various JA programs. In 2012, she was also tapped by JA to be part of a task force exploring ways to bring more science, technology, engineering and math experiences—the hard sciences collectively referred to as STEM—into the organization’s programs.

Casey says her initial introduction to JA occurred somewhere around 2002.

“I was teaching second grade when I was introduced to the program,” she says. “Every year that I taught second grade through fourth grade, I had the JA corporate volunteers come and teach in my classroom. Then I volunteered at JA BizTown for summer camp. On my way home from that experience, I called my teammates—I was moving to fifth grade that year—and said, ‘We have to take our kids here! This is the coolest thing I’ve ever been to for kids and they will love it!’ So for the next three years that I taught fifth grade, we took our kids to JA BizTown every year.”

This past fall, Casey transferred to the newly opened School of Engineering and Arts in part because of the school’s concentrated focus on science- and math-related coursework.

STEM training has become a hot button in educational circles as the need for students who are proficient in these areas becomes readily evident. STEM standards emphasize a variety of interrelated skills, such as teamwork and cooperation, as well as student activities such as observing and recording data. STEM activities also strive to help students make a connection between theoretical learning and its real-world applications. Through the integration of STEM concepts in the classroom, students will be introduced to processes and skills necessary to succeed in today’s workplace.

In the fall of 2012, JAUM invited Casey to be on the STEM task force to brainstorm ways to bring more STEM experiences into the JA curriculum, particularly with regard to JA BizTown. (JA is currently conducting a pilot program with a concentrated STEM focus, with plans to roll out the refined curriculum in the near future.)

As part of the task force, Casey joined members of the JA team and half a dozen or so corporate supporters to talk through ways in which to enhance the JA BizTown experience by adding more applied STEM.

In fact, however, Casey believes that JA BizTown already incorporates many of the key standards and practices that STEM embraces.

“The financial part of the curriculum at JA BizTown, in terms of checkbooks and keeping track of loan paperwork for a business and that type of thing, that covers math right there,” Casey says. “For science, I suggested we might switch some of the job titles at JA BizTown and have students be engineers or research and development people, and then tweak the activities they do. That might include putting experiments into the health center, for instance, or having kids do some investigations with windmill design in the construction center. In terms of engineering and the design process, the two or three stores at JA BizTown that produce a product already encompass that, but I suggested that if the kids had a list of the materials available ahead of time, they might also be able to use that to design their own products.”

Casey’s strong support of STEM learning ironically comes from her own unsatisfactory experiences with the sciences when she was a child.

“As a kid I hated science,” she says. “It was boring and it was just something I never got attached to. But as I started teaching, I realized that I might be passing that attitude on to my kids, and I realized that I was going to do to these kids what my [uninspiring] science classes did to me.”

To remedy that, Casey began taking professional development classes focused on STEM learning, and she jumped at the chance last fall to move to the new school in order to put her new skills into practice.

“The skills that are present in STEM-type jobs, they’re now calling them the ‘practices’ of science,” she says. “So from kindergarten to fifth grade, we’re working on the practices of science. It used to be that we’d focus more on themes, where we might study magnets or habitats for a six-week period. But now, rather than just those six-week studies, we’ve figured out a way to cover multiple standards. For instance, for our first graders we’re collecting data when we see geese in the yard outside and we’re talking about why we might be seeing them or not seeing them at a particular time.

“Another one of the first activities we did with our first graders in engineering was to ask them, ‘Can you make a flinker?’ That’s an item that doesn’t float or sink, but instead hangs out halfway between those two. Our science teacher said that state is called neutral buoyancy, so we told the kids that. Then we heard a bunch of 6-year-olds saying, ‘Well I think it’s going to be neutrally buoyant,” she says.

“What I would share with teachers who have never taken advantage of JA programs is that it’s all standards-based, and it’s such a great way to get the community involved with our schools. It’s a wonderful way to set up that connection with your neighborhood and your community. I’ve told my principal about it, and she’s asked me to give a presentation at a teacher’s meeting to introduce JA at this school.

“If you look at what’s going on right now in ‘real life’ with the national economic situation, I think it makes sense to start preparing kids right now for,” Casey concludes. “Give them a little bit of exposure to that each year because that knowledge is going to be invaluable for them.”