STEM Fellows: Where Are They Now?

Featuring Emily Johnson, Bradie Shrum Elementary, Salem Community Schools

“We are playing with robots today! Yay!” chimed a group of second-grade students as they entered the Imagine Lab at Bradie Shrum Elementary in Salem. Their teacher, K-5 STEAM Coordinator Emily Johnson, greets them and assures them that the faster they get settled, the faster they will begin exploring with the robots.

In her second year as a STEAM Coordinator, Emily teaches alongside co-teacher Crystal Mikels. Together, they facilitate learning in the Imagine Lab and the Creation Station. In the Imagine Lab, Emily introduces new robotics concepts and facilitates Project Lead The Way (PLTW) Launch curriculum with students in grades K-5. Once robotics concepts are introduced, students utilize those skills in the Creation Station through project-based learning and design challenges with Crystal.

The excitement is palpable in the Imagine Lab. Students are eager to listen and answer questions during a brief introduction of Edison, a small programmable robot that is new to the second-grade students. “Do robots think for themselves?” asks Mrs. Johnson. “NO!” responds the class. The students are confident. They learned about coding in previous class sessions. Soon the robots are handed out, and students are encouraged to work with a partner, start small, and figure out how the robot works together. Developing these foundational skills at an early age is part of the STEAM program design.

Johnson credits the ROI STEM Fellowship with jumpstarting her career journey to where she is now. It was in 2017 when Emily Johnson was one of ROI’s first STEM Fellows in cohort one. Back then, learning about STEM skills, robotics, and PLTW piqued her interest in STEM teaching and learning. That interest led her to share her passion for STEM with other teachers in her building and ultimately to work with administrators to design a building-wide STEAM program that benefits all 850 K-5 students at Bradie Shrum Elementary. Imagine Lab and Creation Station are two of six special area classes that students rotate through each week.

The STEAM program introduces students to a broad range of robots and programming challenges. Grouped by grade band, kindergarten and first-grade students learn robots that introduce beginning coding concepts like Bee-Bot and HEXBUG. Older students are introduced to Edison, which offers a range of programming options from simple barcodes to block and text-based coding. As 4th and 5th graders, students gain experience with robots that have more complex capabilities, like Wonder Workshop’s Cue and Lego’s EV3 Mindstorm. When asked about the range of robots available to students, Mrs. Johnson shares that grant funding has made purchasing much of the equipment possible.

Passion for robotics at Bradie Shrum stretches beyond the school day. In addition to STEAM classes, Johnson and Mikels also coach the school’s robotics team. The Bradie Shrum Circuit Breakers, launched by Johnson in 2020, is a team of 4th and 5th-grade students who compete in the First Lego League (FLL). As part of FLL, students work collaboratively to solve an annual robotics challenge centered around a yearly theme. This year’s theme is energy.

The team is composed of nine students, five 4th graders and four 5th graders, two of whom competed with the Circuit Breakers last year. Keiston, a veteran robotics team member shared, “My first year, I didn’t really know how to program or code. The second year taught me how to send the programs to the robot.” Fourth-grade classmate Ariana quickly responds, “Keiston is a good role model. He worked with our small group to teach us.”

It doesn’t take much time to understand that the camaraderie within the group is what makes the team so successful. This year’s team competed in a regional competition in November, where they placed first in Core Values and in the top ten overall, qualifying them for the state competition. First Lego League scores teams on four equal components; robot design, table games, innovation project, and core values. Demonstrating the values of fun, innovation, discovery, inclusion, and teamwork throughout the competition set the Circuit Breakers apart from the rest.

Clark, a 5th-grade student, showcased the team’s robot during a visit to the Imagine Lab. When asked if it was smaller than most, he explained, “We designed it to be small. It has to go in and out of places during the competition. Some team’s robots get stuck; our’s doesn’t.” Keiston adds, “Our robot is small but mighty!” The students take pride in the design process and in solving challenges themselves.

This year is Johnson’s third year coaching robotics. In 2020, the school’s first robotics team won 1st place for Robot Design in the regional competition and qualified for the state competition. Similar to this year, the 2021 team was awarded 1st place for Core Values.

For Johnson, it isn’t about winning but developing young people. Most team members are invited to participate based on their interest in and natural affinity for robotics. Johnson shared that others are invited because they need an afterschool activity. Between the robot build, programming, and the innovation project, there is a place for everyone on the team.

For ROI, Emily Johnson is an exciting example of how the STEM Fellowship is having a ripple effect, creating leaders in the Uplands, impacting STEM teaching and learning at a larger scale, and in this case, from the classroom to the whole building.

ROI’s intentional design of the fellowship focuses on early exposure to STEM. The Uplands’ three key industry sectors urgently need talent skilled in robotics, coding, and programming. Johnson’s work illustrates how to develop these needed skills and while making learning fun. Like Johnson, many other STEM Fellows have grown into leadership roles. These devoted educators across the Indiana Uplands are increasing capacity for STEM programming and opportunities for students to develop the skills necessary to pursue career opportunities in STEM fields.