L&N STEM Academy brings scientific methods to all parts of education

Magnet school encourages intelligent exploration of passions

by Jordan Achs

Nestled in the woodsy northeast corner of the World’s Fair Park in downtown Knoxville is a vintage brick building covered with tall, intricate stained-glass windows and featuring a large neon sign visible from the street intersections surrounding the edifice. This mysterious former train station is actually the current home of the L&N STEM Academy, a magnet school aiming to bring scientific critical thinking and reasoning into all parts of the high school experience.

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and these subject matters impact all curriculum and coursework at the academy. Tim Powell, the office manager, explains that scientific methods, such as creating and testing a hypothesis, can overlap into non-STEM-related fields. Thus topics like art and history can be further explored in a novel manner, and students can gain new perspectives into the humanities.

“As an interviewer said this week, ‘You might have the best new idea, but if you can’t communicate it, that idea won’t go anywhere,’” Powell says. “So for a subject like English or theater, that fits right in.”

This model allows the school to simultaneously draw in students interested in science and engineering, as well as art and theater. Jaden Stone, a senior at L&N STEM Academy, says that, despite his plan to go into a STEM career field in the future, he has really enjoyed theater class this year. At the same time, another senior, Heather Brewer, says that she is not planning to go into a STEM career field. As the treasurer of the Antiquarians, a school club that learns about the history of Knoxville, she has immersed herself into the subject by going on field trips to different historical sites in the area. Her favorite among them was a visit to the Mabry-Hazen House, a home in East Knoxville on the national registry of historic places that was used as both Union and Confederate headquarters at separate points during the Civil War.

“Because we were a history club, they took us down into the basement. Nobody else really gets to see that,” Brewer says.

The gathering of the Antiquarians occurs during what L&N calls “genius hour,” in which students meet during one of three class breaks throughout the day in various clubs or organizations that fit their interests. Since the students come from all over Knox County, it can be hard to coordinate these clubs after school. Instead, L&N integrated these activities into their school schedule three days a week. There’s a genius hour for any hobby or subject matter you can think of, including recycling, 3-D printing, Southeastern Consortium of Minorities in Engineering (SECME), random acts of kindness and ground flight school. Some students, such as Brewer, even choose clubs like silent reading to get extra study time, while others, like Stone, can use the time to get exercise with Outdoor Activities. Powell adds that it’s a great opportunity to give the students time for tutoring if they have questions about homework.

“If we have students who have a D or lower grade, we can say ‘Okay, well you aren’t going to go to Urban Hiking for a while. We’re going to put you into Latin tutoring, and when your Latin grade is a C or better, you can either choose to stay in tutoring or you can go back to the club you came from originally,’” Powell explains.

“It allows us to offer support during the day – or a brain break,” he adds.

Many of the genius hours give students access to state-of-the-art technology, such as a 3-D printer. The school also has a one-to-one Apple Inc. program, where each student gets a computer or iPad to help with coursework. In fact, a microgravity experiment designed by L&N students in 2014 is on a mission aboard the International Space Station. Jaden notes that one reason he decided to attend L&N is the access to technology and the opportunities available to him because of it.

In addition to time allotted to exploring new technology and individual interests, many seniors that meet certain GPA requirements and have a good letter of recommendation can get an internship with local businesses in the area, such as veterinarian offices, law offices or whatever suits the students’ preferred paths and career goals.

“One student in particular that comes to mind analyzed data for Oak Ridge National Lab,” Powell says. “That student was working with real scientists and seeing real work getting done, and those experiences are invaluable.”

The school is able to offer such personalized methods of education due to its foundational structure as a magnet school. Founded in 2011, the small school operates with yearlong classes instead of the traditional semester model, with students’ workloads averaging eight courses per term. Although it’s still considered a public school, being a magnet school allows for aspects like blended classes (where students spend time learning away from the classroom) and a focus on STEM research and integration, which pushes it beyond traditional public school structure.

“In a nutshell, a magnet school puts kids with similar interests together,” Powell says. “Everyone understands the importance of the time in the classroom, and that I think is the beauty of our school.”

The term “magnet” is used because it attracts students from all over Knoxville and the surrounding school districts in Knox County. Originally created in the late ‘60s, magnet schools were created as a way to help desegregate schools by appealing to students interested in certain career fields and interests, regardless of where they lived.

“We’re really diverse, so there’s a lot of different students,” Stone says. “You have to work with a lot of different people you’re not used to working with. I think it’s a really good life skill to have.”

The admissions department accepts students for each 9th-grade class, and they add new sophomores, juniors and seniors to keep class sizes at about 150 students per grade.

“We accept freshmen from around Knox County, but a few of those will choose not to stay with us,” Powell explains. “Some right away – they miss their friends, they really wanted to play basketball and we don’t have some of the larger sports – or they just get here, and it isn’t for them. That opens up 12-15 spots, which then are available for new sophomores the next year.”

The building itself has a rich heritage, which encourages and sets the tone for cultivating learning and experimenting while offering a contrast to the new technologies in the school. The station was Louisville and Nashville Railroad’s biggest and grandest train station along its Atlanta-Cincinnati line until it stopped serving passengers in 1968 and was subsequently sectioned into offices until the 1982 World’s Fair. During the fair, the depot housed a Ruby Tuesday and L&N Seafood Grill on the first floor and VIP offices on the second floor. Groups like the Antiquarians study this rich history, and Powell says that, for its 110-year anniversary, one senior did a final project compiling a history of the building.

“We are at a place where the people who used to work in the building are passing, and their families are finding a belt buckle or a photograph of them when they were in one of the classrooms,” Powell says. “And they’re making their way to us, which is nice. So while we don’t include it directly in our curriculum, we are cognizant of the significance of our building.”

The academy has structure and technology that contrasts with traditional public schools quite a bit, and Powell attributes much of the success to the administration and, likewise, the school’s support for the teaching staff. Powell says he sees teachers finding new and unique ways to implement technology in their classrooms instead of using it as a crutch.

“If you want to try something, it doesn’t have to be a proven success,” Powell explains. “If you’re like, ‘Hey, I have this idea,’ they want to know how it’s going, and if it fails, ‘What are you going to do differently next time?’”

This method pushes both students and teachers to grow and explore new ways of learning. Also, it prepares students while encouraging them to develop and explore new hobbies and ideas.

“Every school has amazing students, but every day I’m learning about a student and their project and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, why didn’t I think of that? How did I not know that student was that brilliant?’” Powell says.

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