When he’s not working with the Museum of Science and Industry, serving on the board of the Florida Aquarium or liaising with post-secondary schools regarding STEM education, Plank is paving the way for technology integration into STEM curriculum for Hillsborough County Public Schools.
One of the most exciting programs Plank is working on involves the district’s newly combined K-8 school. Just four years on the job, Plank is working to leverage the power of all of the technology used throughout the school district to create a specialized STEM learning environment. This physical space is called the Innovations Lab. The Innovations Lab, which has enough space to host up to three separate classes at the same time, provides students with an environment similar to those of professional scientists. “Kids can write on the walls, write on their desks and draw out ideas to think like scientists and engineers,” Plank says. In addition, the Innovations Lab is complete with a traditional science lab, mobile furniture and a robotics court. Though Plank does not currently have plans to roll the Innovations Lab out to other schools, he recognizes that if it’s successful, this could be the model that all STEM programs follow.
Using technology and a creative classroom layout, Plank created a space where students can explore higher-level thinking and concepts. To help achieve this, he ensured that students have access to probeware to make scientific data measurements, even in primary grades. These devices collect data, which the students can use to generate their own claims. In addition, Plank has ensured that every middle school and high school has an online subscription to simulation models, which are used within the curriculum so the traditional pages of a textbook come to life and can be manipulated by the learner. “Utilizing these software programs helps us in mathematics, alongside our Common Core implementation, to contextualize math in a way that’s meaningful,” says Plank. Fifty-question worksheets in mathematics classes are now a thing of the past with Plank’s approach to technology.
Even in the current culture of high-stakes testing and funding, the use of technology and innovative environments is making school fun for students. “I always say that happy kids make happy teachers, and happy teachers make happy administrators,” says Plank. The Innovations Lab helps to ensure that every student has access to STEM technology. With 200,000 students and 250 schools, Plank has to look at creative solutions to ensure all students have access to technology. “We have to think of ways that we can bring STEM to life for all kids, while still being financially responsible to the public,” says Plank.
Going into its second year of implementation, Plank believes the Innovations Lab will help STEM learning skyrocket. He has pushed the envelope and worked to improve the perception of STEM. “When we approached technology from an educational perspective of not just being cool, but looking at how it will help kids and instructors be more effective, that is where we got a lot of buy-in,” he says. As Plank carries out his vision of STEM for all students, we’re sure to see more creative solutions like the Innovations Lab well into the future.