Georgia Innovation Fund Projects Open Students’ Minds to What is Possible

Sixth grade students conduct a water testing experiment in a Soil, Water Quality, and Weather course. This class serves as an introduction to environmental studies through STEM. While this class is designed to allow exploration in STEM, the primary focus of student learning coincides with sixth grade curriculum in Earth Science with an emphasis on weather, soil/water quality. Photo Credit: Rockdale STEM Academy

Sixth grade students conduct a water testing experiment in a Soil, Water Quality, and Weather course. This class serves as an introduction to environmental studies through STEM. While this class is designed to allow exploration in STEM, the primary focus of student learning coincides with sixth grade curriculum in Earth Science with an emphasis on weather, soil/water quality. Photo Credit: Rockdale STEM Academy

Many of the projects focus on boosting students’ interest in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Last year at Rockdale 21st Century Academy of Environmental Studies, eighth grader Yasin learned about magnetism, electricity and circuits in his Energy and Sustainable Technology course. His classmates, Imani and Max, figured out how to create solar power through wind turbines and solar panels. These hands-on learning experiences are part of a rigorous sequence of courses (others include biomedical engineering, meteorology and forensics) at Rockdale, one of only two STEM-focused middle school programs in Georgia.

The goal of the middle school, located east of Atlanta in Rockdale County, is to encourage students to enter a rigorous STEM-focused high school and ultimately go into science-based careers. That is just what Max, Yasin and Imani want to do: Max, a medical professional; Yasin, an engineer; and Imani, a pediatric neurosurgeon.

The students spoke about their school and their plans in a video that describes the academy’s program and its founding.

The academy is one of 23 projects launched or expanded since 2011 with financial support from Georgia’s Innovation Fund, which was in turn underwritten by the State’s Federal Race to the Top grant. Projects include the opening of four new public charter schools with a STEM focus, the development of new STEM curricula, the recruitment of STEM educators to teach in rural areas and new approaches to teacher and principal preparation and support. While not all of the projects were STEM-focused, all of them were designed to increase college and career readiness.

It is still too early to fully assess the impact of the programs, but initial indicators are positive. A survey of 928 students who participated in innovation fund projects found significant increases in self-management skills and motivation to pursue STEM-related careers. Some of the programs are reporting notable gains in on-time graduation rates and the number of college credits earned by participants.

Partnerships to Empower Communities

One of the State’s Race to the Top grant requirements was that projects had to establish partnerships among schools or districts, institutions of higher education, businesses and nonprofit organizations. In a press release, Governor Nathan Deal said, “The Innovation Fund empowers local communities to work together and think creatively about how to best address their educational needs.”

GA 2

Eighth grade students in an Energy and Sustainable Technology course. Students are teamed with a partner organization to complete a major capstone project with the goal of applying learning to provide a solution that creates a change in their community or partner organization’s mode of operation. Photo Credit: Rockdale STEM Academy

The Rockdale academy emerged from a partnership among the Rockdale County Public Schools; the Georgia Tech Center for Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing; the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology; and the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, which works to boost college success among low-income students.

The program was developed in order to graduate students with skills to boost the competitiveness of the local workforce and address rising poverty. “Rockdale County’s future—and the future of Georgia—depend on our ability to boost student performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Principal Andrea McMahan.

Learning Through Experiments and Discussion

Through the lens of environmental science, the academy engages students with a focus on climate, water quality and sustainable energy. Students also study bioengineering and biomedicine—both growing fields.

Much of the learning occurs through experiments and subsequent small-group analysis of the results. McMahan said those activities help students develop the problem-solving and analytical skills they need to succeed in college and careers. “We’re teaching students to think rather than give a canned answer,” she said. “Now they ask better questions and are able to go back to their notes and work through the answer themselves, or with a peer.”

The students learn more about science-based careers through internships and “lunch-and-learns” with professionals from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia Power and NASA. McMahan said the approach has increased students’ engagement and persistence in their coursework.GA Text Box

The Workplace as a Learning Laboratory

In Western Georgia, another Innovation Fund project exposes students to careers and hands-on learning opportunities. STEM for Life promotes STEM careers among students who are considered at risk of dropping out of seven high schools in Carroll and Heard Counties. Southwire, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of power cables, is a key partner in this project.

Students take classes on the Southwire campus for part of the day and then work as paid apprentices at the company, learning about the mathematics and science behind manufacturing and electrical and mechanical engineering.

They move through various positions in the plant to broaden their knowledge. For example, students work in a quality assurance laboratory, analyzing the cable and wire made by competitors to determine ways to improve products and cut costs. They also spend time in a raw materials warehouse, learning about distribution, accounting and inventory controls. Southwire employees also mentor students, and students participate in workshops focused on crucial workplace skills such as problem-solving, self-management, and teamwork.

“One of the remarkable things about this program is that it is changing students’ mindsets about what’s possible for their futures,” said Cayanna Good, the director of Innovative Programs in the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. “By providing these kids with an idea of what it looks like to work in a STEM field, it makes students think ‘maybe I can do more than this. Maybe I can actually become an engineer.’ Once they graduate, they have an incentive to pursue postsecondary education.”

Dalton, a senior last year who participated in the program, is a prime example of how the program has impacted students’ future choices. He is now a freshman at West Georgia Tech, and plans to study industrial engineering so he can join the Industrial Maintenance team at Southwire after he graduates. He says his STEM for Life work experience motivated him to take school more seriously, and clarified his career goals.

“Since Southwire was willing to help me get a job, I felt I needed to work harder,” he said. “I used to think I just needed to get by in school, but after I started working, I realized I needed to strive for A’s and B’s.”

Doug Wright, STEM for Life Coordinator for the Carroll County schools, said “the real-world experience our students are getting is phenomenal.” Other companies and agencies have begun offering paid internships because of the program’s success.

Rebecca Ellis, the program manager for the Innovation Fund, said the projects are increasing students’ interest and success in STEM fields. “This program has really demystified math and science,” she said. “Kids used to think they were either naturally good in math and science or not. These students now feel they can learn and grow in these subjects if they apply themselves. We are seeing students doing amazing things.”

Most of the projects that received Race to the Top funds have developed a strategy to continue operating when the funding ends in 2015, Ellis noted. Also, the State has allocated $5 million to help the most successful projects expand to benefit more students.

Ellis said the grant fund createdthe opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not, and make smart decisions about what to scale.”



  • Invest in building strong partnerships: Grantees took time building buy-in and commitment from partners. Having a champion at each organization is key.
  • Learning by doing is a powerful teaching tool: On-the-job training and hands-on projects have helped to demystify mathematics and science, and build critical thinking skills.
  • Don’t rush it: Strong partnership models take time to build. Grantees said that having a year to plan, and a slow rollout that allowed for fine-tuning of programmatic elements have been critical to their success.