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Lakeview Primary Teacher of the Year Brittany Nichols On Gaining Steam with STEAM

Brittany Nichols has been teaching for fourteen years, nearly half of those years at Barrow County just outside of Athens, but what she was quick to discover about Baldwin is how much everybody comes together to invest in the community’s students. “It’s neat to see not only the teachers pouring into the students, but the counselors, the nutritionists, the bus drivers; it’s everyone coming together for all of our students, not just the teachers,” Nichols said. This communal effort towards the success of our children led to the idea of the entire school getting involved in STEAM activities.

So, after four years of Nichols going it alone, the ‘22-’23 school year will see the entire school steeped in STEAM. “Each grade level will have a STEAM project,” Nichols said. All of the projects will be centered around the theme of health and food disparities in Baldwin County. “Kindergarten is going to be working in the garden. First Grade is going to help with weather and making sure that our garden gets enough rain… and then Second Grade will be talking about the lifecycle and pollination. I’m excited to watch Montessori, because they’re going to have worms and help add nutrients into our garden with their worms! Our PEC (Program for Exceptional Children) is going to be composting, but everybody is going to be doing STEAM and I think that is going to make a huge difference in our school and our students’ excitement about being at school.”

The school-wide dedication to STEAM goes well beyond the classroom. Following a complete renovation of the school over the summer, teachers flooded the hallways to begin turning the halls and walls of the school into a paper garden with blooming flowers towering over the hallways with root systems and ant tunnels near the bottoms, giving the entire school the appearance of a complete agricultural system.

Nichols said that she became a STEAM teacher initially because of these kinds of hands-on efforts that the subject requires. “I think that learning team-building skills, socialization, cooperation, collaboration, along with the STEAM areas was one of the most beneficial things for students.” In many ways, this mirrored the kinds of hands-on dedication that Nichols remembers from teachers who inspired her when she was growing up. Ever since, she’s longed to contribute to students’ lives the way that her teachers have contributed to her own.

One of the things that concerns Nichols in the Digital Age is that the vast amount of knowledge at the fingertips of the kindergarteners, first and second-graders that she teaches can make it easy to ignore creative problem-solving skills since just about anything can be Googled. She’s made it part of her mission to teach things that can’t be looked up online. “We have to teach them something that’s way deeper than something that can be Googled,” she said, “we have to teach them how to learn with others… we have to be very conscious of teaching those skills just as much as the reading and the writing and the math.”

"I think that learning team-building skills, socialization, cooperation, collaboration, along with the STEAM areas was one of the most beneficial things for students."

Part of what makes Nichols teaching so incredible is the amount of emphasis she places on her students making mistakes. She’s intentional about creating an environment in which her students are encouraged to fail forward, get back up, and try again to make their projects better. One of her favorite activities is to present students with a choice board where they have the opportunity to build something that they want to build with materials that they want to use.

“They’re immediately excited because they’re used to being told exactly what they need to do, and this gives them the control.” When the students come to her to say that they can’t do it, or that their project has failed, she explains how and why the failure has taught them how to correct and work through it again. Inevitably, Nichols has students who begin the school year by telling her that they can’t do it over and over again, but by the end she doesn’t hear it anymore. She just sees them doing it, and that attitude of doing is absolutely infectious. It has spread, like the paper vines adorning the halls throughout the school’s atrium and into the other classrooms, and now everyone is doing STEAM. That kind of collaborative hands-on effort, isn’t something that can be looked up online. It has to be experienced.

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