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By John Bailey Hickory Daily Record

HICKORY – It’s been a week of connections for area teachers involved in the STEM West Filling the Gap training program.

From teachers connecting to local industries to connecting real-world needs to actual school curriculum, project-based learning received a whole new look.

Teachers from Catawba, Alexander, Burke and Lincoln counties participated in this year’s Filling the Gap week.

The program was developed three years ago by Carol Moore, STEM West Coordinator, and focuses on creating problem-based scenarios for students in science, math and Career Technology Education courses and connecting them to curriculum and STEM related careers, according to a STEM West release.

These projects are made more practical by relating them to a real problem a business is dealing with that students work to solve and then present back to a business.

“If what we’re teaching doesn’t align with anything they’re doing in business, then why are we teaching it,” Moore said. “The thing is this does connect with curricula. We just have to figure out how, and this is one way to do that.”

In a past Filing the Gap session, an algebra teacher at H.M. Arndt Middle ended up working with CommScope and came up with a unique project for her class.

“They had discussed going green with their lighting in one of their new warehouses,” Moore said. “What her students did was use the algebra and algorithms they learned in class to decide when they would break even in cost if the company made the switch.”

Last year, 16 teachers attended Filling the Gap and created projects used to engage more than 400 students throughout the region.

This year’s group started their week by visiting Lake Rhodhiss Wastewater Treatment Facility and worked through a project-based learning (PBL) project created around water quality.

They spent part of the day using different equipment taking and testing water samples. Other businesses visited included Concept Frames, RPM Wood Finishes Group, Inc., SpartaCraft, Schneider Mills, Bemis MFG, Leviton and ZF.

Karen Chester teaches computer technology at Jacobs Fork Middle. She also teaches career exploration and liked the idea of learning ways of connecting what students are learning to real-world problems they can solve and then see the results.

“In the eighth grade, it’s hard to get the students to think about the future,” Chester said. “We try to stress the next four years are going to go quickly, and I try and get them to think about whether they are college bound or career ready.”

The hope is to get students even at a young age to understand there are businesses in Catawba County who do need skilled workers, she said.

“I use this as an opportunity to get my foot in the door in different industries for networking so I can go back into the classroom and share what I’ve learned about these companies,” Chester said. “We talk about injection molding and the auto cad systems and all of the computerized robotics and mechatronics jobs they may not know about.”

Filling the Gap was a unique experience for Clay Nelson, a Liberty Middle teacher in Burke County.

“My degree was in tech-ed so project-based learning is my forte but whenever we went somewhere I was constantly trying to figure out how and what I can do to create a project to go with our curriculum,” Nelson said.

The trip to Bemis MFG in Caldwell County sparked some interest in him. It does plastic injection molding for other companies like John Deere.

He said it’s good to make those connections between project-based learning, curriculum standards and a local business’s needs.
“Digging their hands into a project they get concrete results, and it helps solidify the knowledge their learning,” Nelson said.
There were other takeaways from the trips to different industries. Chester said one thing she heard most often from some of the companies is the need of a greater work ethic.
“It’s showing up to work on time, realizing you might have to work a year before you get a week’s vacation,” Chester said. “This is something else we can explain to our students.”
Along with the training and a $100 stipend, teachers also receive the equipment like current sensors, force sensors, motions sensors and electrostatic kits they’ll need to complete their projects at no charge because of funding through N.C. State University.
“Once their trained to use the technology, the difference is just in the equipment,” Gina Barrier, N.C. State Northwestern Satellite Office Director said. “As long as they know how to use the platforms, the handheld Lab Quest or the software on the laptops, they can add any of the other equipment to a project.”
For more information about STEM West, an educational arm of the Western Piedmont Council of Governments, visit or email


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