SPARK Academy at Cowart Elementary School is now a STEM-certified school, a milestone that can generate smarter, more inquisitive little minds, school officials said.

Four first graders at SPARK tried to explain Tuesday how one facet of STEM education works. They were overseeing the growth of their mystery seeds (which turned out to be lettuce). They didn't learn to grow them the old-fashioned way, but rather the hydroponic way, meaning they grew the greens in water and a special medium.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and STEM-certified schools use the STEM method to improve overall learning in science, math and every other subject.

For example, the hydroponic lettuce growing exercise can carry over to math class, where students could study what quantities of water and food to apply to their greens and how many hours of light is required to grow them. This data would be good for exercises in measurements, percentages or graphs, among other math skills. It could also carry over to reading, where students could read about vegetable growing, either fiction or non-fiction.

The beauty of STEM education, according to Principal Beth McKinney, a seasoned math teacher, is students are more engrossed and excited about learning when it is hands-on and when it carries over into each course area.

She said the teachers at SPARK worked very hard on becoming a certified STEM school and thanked them for their immense effort. Schools have to teach STEM education for three years before they can even be considered for the certification, McKinney said.

According to information provided by McKinney, there is a growing international effort to foster and perpetuate enthusiasm for STEM disciplines. SPARK uses Cognia STEM and it achieved certification for that program.

To become certified, the school had to combine a self-assessment process based on rigorous framework of STEM best practices, information gathering, and the identification of high-quality evidence, with an onsite certification review resulting in data-based findings and a comprehensive, customized report to improve STEM.

It also has to demonstrate the school's ongoing commitment and capacity to prepare student in STEM fields. It has to communicate its commitment to push students to higher levels to post-secondary business and industry leaders. Finally, the school is required to continually evaluate its practices, instructional strategies and learning conditions to achieve desired outcomes.

Visit www.acs-K12.org/SPARK-STEM for more information about the school's STEM efforts, including student projects.

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