Award-winning Educator Reflects on her Experiences with Delaware STEM

Jaime Swartz at the John M Clayton Elementary School showing off her award for STEM educators from the 2022 8th running of the awards July 2023

Jaime Swartz placed 1st in 2022 at the 8th running of the Delaware STEM Educator Awards in the certified elementary school category from John M. Clayton Elementary School. Swartz currently works with 500 students in K-5th grades in Sussex County. A VEX IQ & Project Lead The Way – Launch Lead Certified Educator, Swartz’s lesson plans involve creative hands-on projects that integrate key STEM topics into opportunities for all ages and backgrounds. Swartz’s passion for STEM knows no bounds and while she hasn’t spent the award winnings yet, she hopes to use them to expand STEM offerings to more of her students and possibly go back to school.

What challenges and opportunities do you see in teaching STEM and specifically Project Lead The Way (PLTW) related coursework in Delaware?

There’s a lot of opportunities because there’s a lot of great things that the kids are interested in. STEM allows them to see a lot of things beyond just a rural area. One of the things our school did this year was our equity clubs. Once a month the kids would sign up to go to a club and we would use the last 45 minutes of the day and the activities could be anything from cornhole to spa club. I did a STEM club and we made ice cream one day in the classroom. The next time we learned about how fireworks were made and we made our own fireworks with vinegar and baking soda and glitter. So, it looked like exploding fireworks but it’s a learning experience. Another time we made little model cars and we talked about drag racing, race cars and Nascar and so that was really cool to be able to do. So, all those types of opportunities are great. There are so many students in this classroom that are amazing, and yet, they struggle with reading and math when they go back to their classrooms. The STEM classroom sparks their interest and they don’t realize we’re doing math when we’re measuring the distance or we’re finding the median distance to decide which one of our designs worked the best, because it’s not the typical classroom setting. We have a mixture of students, including from our autism program, those with severe disabilities students and other diverse backgrounds. For example, one little boy, when we talked about the phases of the moon and he had to track the phases for a month. He would come in every day and say, ‘we looked at the moon last night and here’s what the phase was’. It was wonderful because it just really stuck with him. And yet, he is in our severe disabilities program. This class really allows some students a way of learning things that they may not be getting in the traditional classroom. Back to your question about challenges, time I think, would probably be my biggest challenge. I just wish I had more time with them.

How does agriculture or Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture, and Mathematics (STEAM) play into your lessons? There’s a lot of STEM that goes on in agriculture in Delaware.

One of the things that we started last year was our Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids initiative. It’s a program throughout the state where we grow things with the kids and teach them about the growing process. I teach our second graders about the growing process and pollination and careers in that area in the classroom. But I feel like I could do more with that. For example, they see the crops around here and most of them don’t know what they are, so I talk about how corn was planted this year. Next year, it’s going to be beans because of crop rotation, why crop rotation is important and the soil science behind it are generally really interesting to students. I think part of the interest is that I don’t think the kids think about these things, even though they see them all the time, because they’re not paying attention to it when they’re getting driven in the car. I think this speaks to challenges and the time crunch we spoke of. Another example is all the Chicken processing plants where a lot of our parents work because that’s one of the biggest industries around here. There are a lot of engineers that run the plant and maybe we can take a look at how the machinery works. They love to watch educational videos, like how things are made and pretty much anything with machinery and moving parts.

What are some of the creative lessons you used in 2022 to introduce and include students with diverse backgrounds or who have learning needs that must be met in different ways?

All of the lessons are hands-on. So, all of the kids are involved no matter what disability or challenge they may have. We have a lot of writing pieces like for example our engineering design process. We write about how well the process worked? These are usually group projects. So, the students in the group that are a little stronger in that area will do the writing versus others, but I do require each student in the group to share their experiences and insights even if they aren’t able to physically write it themselves or they might not know how to write it because they can’t spell and write in sentences yet, but they can tell a lot of what they’re doing verbally, or pointing or showing. One of my students who is non-verbal with selective mutism, he doesn’t want to talk in the classroom, but if I ask him, ‘hey, what part of this did you like the best?’ He would point to and visually show that when we did our egg designs, he liked the fact that they had built something to go over top of the car because when the car went down, the ramp, it fell over and if they hadn’t had something on the top, the egg would have fallen out and broken. So, there’s lots of ways for them to tell what they’re doing despite those disabilities. And the kids are really great. But a lot of the STEM work doesn’t have to be super modified for them because it is a lot of hands-on work already. It’s hard to find substitutes that are as effective for students as involved learning and things like videos. For example, when we were talking about pollination, the pollen actually sticks to the bee when it goes from plant to plant. And I always want to ask the questions to the students, but ‘how does that work?’ Visuals are just great for answering that question. With short videos or interactive models they can actually see the process of what’s happening. Seeing the bee with the pollen stuck on it. It’s like the coolest thing they’ve ever seen, you know, because they don’t ever get up to bees either, usually running away from them.

What recommendations do you have for other educators? Either looking to teach STEM in the state or looking to apply to the Delaware STEM Educator Awards?

Do it, because it’s the best job. I have so much fun. I will admit that it’s a lot of prep though. But the fact that we get to build these things and test them and learn all these great things. And, you know, when the kids say, “Mrs. Swartz I saw this robot on TV that we talked about in class, you know, Boston Dynamics.” They have another in, they just come and tell you about it because we’ve talked about it in class and they get to see that connection in their eyes. There was this other time when we were at recess and the students saw the bees buzzing around, but because we had talked about them in class, they saw them differently than in the past and now they were telling me things like, “We don’t want to kill the bees, we want to protect them because, you know, they are the pollinators.”

As for the STEM Educator Award, I wouldn’t say applying for the awards was a challenge because it was everything I was already doing in my classroom. I have a hard time selling myself a lot of times on paper, like that’s probably my biggest challenge with applying. One thing that made applying easier was that I had just finished getting my national board certification. Through that process I had some of the videos that I used from the classroom already ready to go.

What was your experience winning the Delaware STEM Educator Awards?

Amazing! It was a shock actually. You apply for it and you hope, you know,” but you never really expect to win. My mom enjoyed coming to see me win too. She tells everybody, she will be out getting her nails done at the salon and she’s telling the ladies, “my daughter just won an award for teaching, you know.” My students in the classroom after the awards asked me about the giant check that was presented to me at the awards because I have it here in the classroom.

What did you end up doing with the funds from winning the Award?

So, I have it on, hold right, this second. I just finished my national board certification which has occupied all of my time of late. But my plan is to go back to school and get a certificate. There is a program for a certificate in STEM education specifically that has caught my eye. In my mind I am thinking, “what can I do to help me teach the kids better”? The other part of the funds I want to use on those fun STEM clubs we talked about. There are never enough funds for the clubs and that is an easy way to impact the lives of my students. Every year I get about $150 dollars to buy materials to teach 500 kids for the year. That’s why we do fundraisers and things because you can’t do all the fun things on $150, for 500 kids, so a lot of what I do comes out of pocket. The funds will help with that too because fun stuff needs supplies.

What’s next for you and what’s next for STEM at Clayton Elementary.

We’re going to keep right on truckin. I want to grow our STEM clubs. I want to make it more in-depth to spark the kids’ attention into the STEM fields. Our technology teacher also teaches one of the PLTW units to help with the technology piece of it, he does a lot of the coding, I do coding as well, so we build on that with each other” but I would like to do even more.

I look forward to more experiential learning environments for the students moving forward. They’re going to remember the experiences so I was thinking about outreach programs that could come here. We have the Barn Hill Preserve down here, in Sussex County. They came in springtime with animals and the kids were just mesmerized because some of them don’t see animals except for what’s on TV. They don’t go to the zoo. Additionally, I think we are getting the hoverboard project to come in the Fall so I am looking forward to being able to teach about that ahead of time for them to come because the kids are going to absolutely love that. They actually build a hoverboard that they can ride on. They learn the science and the STEM behind why this works and how something as simple as a leaf blower can be a propulsion system.

The Hall of Fame wall for recent awards and accomplishments for all-star STEM educator Jaime Swartz in her classroom in Sussex.

What role does educational or instructional tech play in the classroom in the future for you?

A lot. Our kids right now are one to one (1:1) on Chromebooks. I wouldn’t say all of our stuff is on the Chromebook, but there’s a lot of things we have better access to now when they come to STEM class. I can use their Chromebooks when we’re researching, or when they are running simulations like potential kinetic energy. There is a little skateboarder guy on a ramp so they can understand different amounts of energy usages at different heights. I have iPads that we got when we started the program and we use the coding app part of our PLTW program as well as like when my fifth graders would the robotics unit they do. The first half of the school year they build the robot, the second half, they code it to do what it needs to do.

John M. Clayton Elementary School: Part of the Indian River School District, the John M Clayton Elementary School, located at 252 Clayton Ave. Frankford Delaware 19945

Delaware STEM Council: Delaware STEM was created to evaluate the state of STEM education in our schools and recommend ways to improve it.  Our goals are to:

  • Expand the number of Delaware students who ultimately pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM fields and broaden the participation of women and minorities in these fields.
  • Expand the STEM capable workforce to create, grow and attract STEM related businesses to Delaware.
  • Increase STEM literacy for all Delaware students including those who pursue non-STEM related careers, but need STEM skills.