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How Wilkerson Middle School’s summer STEM program helps close the learning gap

Teacher De'Kayah Smith helps Antonio Davis wire a breadboard at Wilkerson Middle School. (Ryan Michaels, The Birmingham Times)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

While the spring semester ended for Birmingham City Schools earlier this month, learning continues during the summer at Malachi Wilkerson Middle School in west Birmingham.

Administrators at the grades 6-8 school have built out the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) portion of their new summer retention plan, teaching students design and electronics, among many other skills.

“We have incorporated a lot of [STEM] to close the achievement gap from the students being out,” said Davida Hill-Johnson, Ed. S., the school’s principal, who added that the STEM program is another avenue for the administration to keep students on the same page.

“With this STEM opportunity, it may be students that didn’t experience a lot of learning loss, but you want to make sure that they don’t have a wider gap coming into the new school year,” she said.

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The STEM program began June 10 and lasts through July 8.

The school’s current focus on technology means students are building and programming drones from kits and 3D printing their own custom board game designs. De’Kayah Smith, a teacher at Wilkerson who handles much of the hands-on STEM programming, said building the drones tests students in numerous areas.

“It involves them having to understand how circuits work, they’re going to have to read through the manuals and be able to follow the instructions on their own and there’s a little bit of coding involved,” she said.

Beyond the current focus, Wilkerson has also given students hands-on experiences with other technical skills such as structural engineering and video production.

Johnson said the variety of skills and knowledge required for students to participate in the hands-on learning has been beneficial in other areas.

“We’ve seen a lot of students make a lot of different gains across content areas because that is just a way of exposing them to higher order thinking skills and being more critical in thinking and problem solving,” she said.

Giving students the opportunity to learn through both experience and traditional teaching allows the kids to better remember what they learn, Johnson said.

“Most students, I have found, when they are able to actually do it and get the hands-on approach to it, and then look at theory and marry the two, they retain it better.”

Wilkerson is putting their efforts toward STEM to help students prepare for the specialized approach of city high schools. Each high school has its own signature program for career training, such as Jackson-Olin’s automotive program.

“What they wanted to do was get a little school started with introducing these students to the basics of each of these different career fields, so that once they got into high school, ninth grade would be a reflective year where they get their core classes, and after that, they can start getting into what they really think that they’re interested in,” Smith said. “It’s trying to prepare them earlier before they get into the workforce.”

That’s just one of several initiatives that Wilkerson has underway this summer. Others include a baking class, a technical class for nail care, as well as programs to help struggling students catch up to their grade level.