STEM School Spotlight: Empire Elementary School

In this edition of the “STEM School Spotlight,” we hear from Adrienne Wiggins, the STEM Coach at Empire Elementary School in Carson City, Nevada. Empire is currently designated as a Developing STEM School. In recent years, Adrienne has been supporting the school in developing and implementing a STEM strategic plan. Adrienne helped teachers at Empire work through a curriculum alignment process before they then developed integrated STEM units. This process caught the attention of other schools in the district, as well as aspiring STEM schools across the state. Notable as well is Empire’s STEM vision, which includes an emphasis on engaging English Learners in STEM. Read on to hear from Adrienne.

Tell us about your background and your school.

I am the STEM Coach at Empire Elementary School in Carson City, Nevada. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a Master of Education: STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) from the University of San Diego. I have achieved various awards over the years, including the Rotary Club Teacher Award, National Dream Team Teacher, Light of Education Award, Voya Unsung Heroes’ Award, the Golden Pinecone for Educational Programs, and Empire’s Teacher of the Year. I have been in education for almost 20 years and taught various grade levels from first through eighth. This is my seventh year in a coaching position.  

Empire Elementary School in Carson City, Nevada, serves PreK-5th grade. We are a high-need Title I school where 100% of our students receive free breakfast and lunch. 78% of our students are minorities and we have 150 English learner students.

Why is STEM important to you and why should the broader Nevada community care about STEM?

STEM education is a critical part of learning. STEM is really about using best practices in the classroom to prepare students for the future. It is also about making connections and bringing relevance to our lessons, increasing engagement and achievement. My passion for bringing STEM into the elementary classroom is about bringing awareness and understanding at an early age, helping open the door to possibilities for our students. All the research shows minorities are underrepresented in STEM fields in large part due to equity and access [issues]. Therefore, I am most excited about our school providing this opportunity to our students. STEM education builds students that are problem solvers, critical thinkers, and innovators. These are important skills for any professional. As we invest in and increase STEM education around the state of Nevada, we are not only providing our students with the quality in education that every student deserves, we are also helping build a sustainable and diverse workforce for our State as we bridge education and career opportunities.   

Talk a little about where your school is on its STEM school journey.

Empire Elementary school started a shift towards STEM education a few years ago and recently received the Governor Designated STEM School Title. This journey has been a process of teamwork, collaboration, and professional growth. Our staff has been dedicated to the process and continues to work hard in building their understanding so that we may provide the best educational opportunities for our students. We are fortunate to have built some amazing partnerships that have helped us along the way as we work towards becoming a model STEM school. 

Having been through the Governor’s Designated STEM School process, what advice do you have for aspiring STEM schools?

Participating in the Governor’s STEM Leadership Academy was a valuable experience for our STEM Leadership team as it really solidified our understanding of STEM education. STEM is used so often and as you search the internet for ideas and resources there are many things out there that are not truly STEM. Having the knowledge of what STEM is and is not is an important part of the process. The Nevada STEM Framework is a great resource to self-evaluate and see what areas your school may need to make improvements. I would definitely recommend starting here if you are an aspiring STEM school. I would also recommend applying for the STEM Leadership Academy if you are committed as it helps your team work through what STEM could look like at your school. It is great preparation for the work ahead.

What challenges has COVID-19 posed to your school and what have you done to overcome them?

The pandemic has made things more challenging not just in STEM but in education in general. Our school was invested in our STEM journey and didn’t want to freeze our process, so we forged ahead. We have needed more supplies as students could not work the same way in teams. We also needed more supplies to send home to individual students that opted for remote learning. However, it was important to make sure they were provided with the same opportunities as our in-seat students. Kits were put together to send home with these students and our teachers did lessons over zoom while students interacted with the supplies we sent home. We also set up many precautionary measures to still provide the hands-on experience our students so desperately needed. For example, students sanitized before and after each activity. Materials were sanitized between uses. Students were still able to collaborate, we just made sure there was some distance between them. We even used Zoom to collaborate remotely. 

I would like to mention here that Envirolution has been a big support in helping create kits for our students to use remotely and we appreciate their help. 

What are your plans for 2021?

As we move forward in this new year, we are hoping to continue our professional growth by increasing our understanding of equity, cultural relevance, sustainability, and phenomenon-based place-based, project-based, problem-based learning (P4BL). Our teachers will then use the knowledge to create integrated STEM units for our students. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I mentioned earlier about our teamwork and partnerships and just want any school thinking about this journey to know you do not have to do it alone. There are many organizations that would like to support this initiative. Empire would not be where we are without the outpouring of support and opportunities provided for us to learn. Thank you OSIT, Lemelson Academy, Envirolution, Green Schools National Network, Green Our Planet, and all the professionals that have come to speak with our students. You have all provided our staff with valuable experiences that have made us better educators. 

Learn more about the Nevada Governor's Designated STEM Schools here