By Ken Jackson
The Osceola County School District is leading the nation at the wheel of one really high-tech recreational vehicle.
As part of its ongoing effort to expand its STEM curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math, the district, with the help of private and public partners, such as the Osceola County Commission, the Education Foundation Osceola, Walt Disney World and Dell, has commissioned a 45-foot motor coach outfitted with seven interactive hands-on student learning stations.
The Mobile STEM Lab arrived from the manufacturer this week and was put on display for fifth-grade students at Kissimmee Elementary School, as well as local dignitaries on Thursday. District staff raved that of the 28 of such mobile science labs of this caliber, all are tied to universities or hospitals, making the Osceola School District the only public K-12 system with one.
“When our commissioners toured our STEM schools they asked how they could help, and they stepped up and helped monetarily,” District Superintendent Melba Luciano said. “We haven’t been alone in this, we’ve had great community involvement. We want the kids to know that the community is here for you to see that you are successful.”
Inside the RV, which the district purchased and had outfitted by a Ohio firm, students will get to engage in Earth Science-based learning, such as weather study, medical and biological technology and geological, environmental, electrical and structural engineering.
Kissimmee Elementary fifth-grader Steven Campos was in the Mobile Lab Thursday separating the minerals from water, then studying the water under a microscope to check for bacteria. He’s already interested in science, but he said doing experiments like he did makes him more excited to learn more.
“I already knew I wanted to be a science or math teacher,” 10-year-old Campos said. “It feels like I’m learning a lot in just a short time. I think this is really fun.”
The School District spent $843,000 to buy the RV chassis and then spent another $200,000 to outfit it with technology that the students will use. The best part of the deal for adults is that no local School District revenue was used – a federal Title I grant funded the lab, and the technology came from $100,000 donations from the County Commission and Dell. About $50,000 will be spent annually to fund the curriculum needs for the lab, again coming from Florida Department of Education funds, so it took about $1.4 million to get the “STEM mobile” rolling for students.
The Mobile Lab will travel throughout the county, stopping at elementary schools for about three days each. One of those nights will be a family night, where parents are invited to join in science learning with their students in the school cafeteria and take their turns in the Mobile Lab.
Luciano said engaged students in STEM lessons isn’t all science – it’s also about money and economics.
“Three years ago our district had two schools partially engaged in a STEM curriculum,” she said Thursday. “Today that number is 18 totally-engaged schools. The School Board understands the direction our world is moving in, and doing what we can leads kids into opportunities for great careers. What we’re doing here is about economic development.”
And successful students help drive a successful economy wherever they live, district Director of Special Programs Leslie Campbell said.
“If we can inspire kids to look at things differently and spark something for them, it’s all worth the work we put into it,” she said.
Sonya Morris, the chief of federal programs for the Florida Department of Education, called the unveiling of the STEM Mobile Lab, “Our proudest work yet.
“This school board should be talking with other boards and the (Florida School Board Association) about this,” she said.