Daniel D. Challener – Keeping the Promise of Public Education

Dan Challener is an NEA Foundation STEM program partner. I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a lot of people will tell you that Chattanooga is a cool city. When it came time to rewire our city for the Electric Power Board, they made a decision not just to wire it for electricity, but to wire it for the internet, so Chattanooga became the first geek city in America. It’s also been called one of the hardest places to escape poverty which is why Dan feels so strongly about keeping the promise of public education. The promise of public education has always been that if you get a good education you can have a good life and you can move out of poverty. I think there’s a saying about the road out of poverty begins at the schoolhouse door. And so that’s to me a big part of the promise of public education. Early in his career he interviewed kids who dropped out of school and realized they were really smart but school just didn’t work for them. It really made me want to stay engaged and see what public schools, how we could as a community help change our public school so that they served all kids and gave them the kind of education that I had gotten. As president of the public education foundation in Chattanooga, he told me he’s been working toward that goal. A great deal of our work is helping, developing professional learning for teachers to keep them on the cutting edge. One of the things we’re working with right now has to do with digital fabrication labs and using tools to actually create prototypes, so it’s not just a PowerPoint slide or an essay that says here is how I’d solved that problem, but actually building the solution. So you were really excited about one of those digital fabrication project. That’s right. Tell me about what it was, it involved middle school students? So we created eight of these labs and one of them was at Dalewood middle school Dale wood middle school is a In a really economically stressed neighborhood virtually every student there is eligible for a free or reduced price lunch. One of the students heard about what he thought was a Grand Prix race car competition and he was really excited and he went to the teacher who works in that digital fabrication lab and says, well, could we build a Grand Prix race car? And the teacher said sure, they did a little more research and what they found out it wasn’t actually a Grand Prix, it was a Green Prix and the idea was to build a solar-powered race car and the goal wasn’t to see who could go the fastest, it was who could go the farthest. Well, so they decided okay and they start out there about 15 students and it’s students who like building things and they’re working as hard as they can, they finish it two days ahead of time. They drive it, they’re really proud of it and they get there and they find out that it wasn’t just middle schools, It was middle schools and high schools, and in fact Huntsville, Alabama high school is there and if you know anything about Huntsville its famous as Rocket City. And so these middle school students are really worried about competing against high schools. Well, Dalewood Middle School team has one thing that Huntsville doesn’t have, Huntsville high school, and that is those light weight sixth-grade drivers and so they actually won the competition, they went farther than any school, including Huntsville Alabama’s high school team and and they win the contest. And it’s a pretty big story right, that this middle school, these students have built the best solar-powered race car that story inspired me about what can happen when students are engaged and you know, I don’t know what happens, whether this is what breaks them out of the challenges they have, but it’s one of the stories that I think about when I think, what’s the promise of public education?

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