Renee Powell tells her students at Lanier Elementary School that they can do anything if they work for it, and proof of that concept arrived Monday afternoon as a giant check for $25,000.

As members of Lanier’s STEM Scouts wearing white lab coats and goggles were mixing up batches of slime after school, visitors walked in with balloons, cupcakes and the check.

Powell and the students were shocked and delighted to learn a video they had created earned the grand prize in the 11th Extreme Classroom Makeover from Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

With the funding Powell plans to buy virtual reality glasses to show students things they may never see in real life, 3D printers to bring the designs they create to life, digital microscopes and a camera to create live video announcements for the school.

She also wants to bring in sewing machines so the students can experience fashion design, perhaps taking apart old garments and creating something new.

Powell is passionate about bringing hands-on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — to students. “It opens up opportunities they didn’t know are out there,” she said.

A fifth-grader who started the school year with no idea about his future now declares he wants to be a robotics engineer.

“I’ve seen the student who struggles in a classroom blossom,” Powell said.

She confesses that as a student she hated science and high school, finishing with C’s and D’s. Now she hopes to spark interest in her students, showing them that school is worth continuing so they don’t drop out in a few years.

Teaching is her second career, after being a youth minister. Powell said she thought she was happy as a science teacher, before she started teaching STEM.

Her students collected data during the solar eclipse in 2017, and she just received a weather station for the school through a grant.

She won a 3D printer from another ORAU competition last year and wants to add more, since printing one item such as a fidget spinner can take about three hours and she has 68 fifth-graders ready to test their designs.

Powell used some money at Christmas to buy a set of VR goggles, but she shares them with the entire school. When a social studies teacher recently mentioned a lesson on Pearl Harbor, Powell knew of a VR program that would take the students there, but they had to do it one at a time.

Student led

Powell credited the students for bringing the classroom makeover vision to life in the video submission, featuring a character named “Mr. Cababal” as host of “America’s Classroom Makeover.”

“She just let us loose,” Sara Beth Gregory said, and the students created props like circuits and 3D printers from materials stored in a shed outside the classroom.

“They just went out there and scavenged,” Powell said. “I think it was pretty amazing.”

Her students are used to being creative. After the winter break they wanted to create video announcements for the school, but even the Lanier intercom was broken. So they improvised, using Powell’s laptop as their camera. Now, she told them, they can buy a real camera.

Learning with Powell always is hands-on.

“She doesn’t just teach you in a way that you’re sitting down and in class all the time doing nothing except looking at a book,” said Jonathan Chitwood, a fifth-grader. “She sets you up and you go do stuff outside of the classroom.”

Lanier started STEM classes for all grades last year, as well as the after-school STEM Scouts, which are funded by United Way.

“Kids absolutely just love coming to STEM every week, and I don’t think it has anything to do with me,” Powell said. “It makes them feel good about themselves. They realize that they can do things that they didn’t know they could do before.”

“I try to spark something in them that says, ‘Yes, I can do this.’”

Lynda Regal, Lanier’s speech pathologist who leads the STEM Scouts with Powell, said the students also are learning important skills such as collaboration.

“I really like how they work together as a team,” Regal said, and teams will even help each other with challenges.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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