Teachers doing a lot with what they've got

Take a look around the room. Explain what you have, what you’re doing with it all, and what you would do if you had more stuff. For many of us, it’s already hard to justify the use of the things we already have, let alone convince someone we need more.

Hannah Meucci and Andrea Tee, teachers at Bremerton’s West Hills STEM Academy, went through this process and convinced judges at the Shell Science Lab Challenge that they deserved quite a bit more stuff.

Hannah MeucciMeucci and Tee teach sixth and seventh grade at West Hills. This fall they wrote a grant proposal to the Science Lab Challenge, outlining the resources they had and how they were using them.

The two teachers tried to explain to judges the minimal resources they had at their disposal.

“We’re a STEM school, so we’re supposed to be having hands-on, career-relatable experiences, and right now our students are not experiencing a lot of the work related aspects,” Meucci said.

According to Meucci and Tee, the classes lack proper microscopes, petri dishes and other practical science equipment.

“We do not have an eye washing station should children put chemicals in their eyes,” Tee said.

Tee stressed the level of importance the classes place on safety, always wearing protective eye-wear during experiments. Even with those protective measures, she admitted, without the eye-washing station there are a number of important projects her class simply can’t perform.

Andrea TeeWhen Meucci and Tee’s proposal was accepted, they spent their weekends in the winter creating a video to show the judges the equipment they worked with and what they lacked.

At the end of February, the Science Lab Challenge announced West Hills as one of 18 regional winners throughout the United States and Canada. Wes Hills beat out every other school that applied in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

Among those 18 winners, four finalists and one grand prize winner will be selected for additional awards. Meucci and Tee are anxiously awaiting an email that could come any day, telling them whether or not West Hills will be one of those finalists.

“While we do want to continue on, we are grateful for what we’ve gotten thus far,” Tee said.

The Science Lab Challenge will award West Hills a total of $3,000, including donated lab equipment, money to buy equipment of the school’s choosing and gift certificates to the National Science Teachers Association book store. Shell will also pay for Meucci and Tee to attend a 2013 science education conference.

If West Hills makes it to the finalist stage the school will receive an additional $5,500 in awards, and the grand prize winner will receive and additional $11,500 for a total prize of $20,000.

Meucci and Tee said, regardless of whether they make it further or not, the first things they will buy will be new microscopes. The high-powered microscopes they need, however, aren’t cheap. Even with $1,000 they estimated that they could probably only afford a couple.

“Even if it’s just two, even if that’s all we can afford, we will at least have two at this school,” Meucci said. “Having a microscope opens a world.”

Meucci and Tee said even now, many of their projects wouldn’t be possible without the help of Bremerton High School’s CTE and science programs, which often let them borrow portable equipment.

“We are definitely scavengers,” Meucci said.

There are often things the teachers can’t borrow, like equipment that isn’t portable. For many things, Tee said, they have to either improvise or pay for it themselves.

“Creativity,” Tee said, “It’s either creativity or my personal checkbook.”

West Hills was transformed in the last couple years after dwindling performance, re-opening as a STEM academy in 2011. It serves fourth through seventh grades, and next year will add eighth grade to its classes offerings.

Since the re-opening test scores and performance have indicated a dramatic turn-around. Earlier this school year, West Hills was awarded a $19,000 lighthouse grant from the state to show its innovate and successful STEM model to other schools in Washington.

The school serves a particularly high number of children from low-income families. Nearly 78 percent of its students come from families that live at or below the federal poverty level. For a single parent and one child, this equates to a maximum annual income of $27,991.

“Our kids are definitely grateful for what they get to come to school and experience,”  Tee said.

As for Meucci and Tee, they said they just hope to help provide their sixth and seventh grade students with real world experience — which they think will be greatly improved by the additional lab equipment they will get from the challenge.

While the two hope to make it further in the Science Lab Challenge, they, like their students, are thankful for what they have. As Tee said it: “Ultimately, I think this is just us continuing the dream of the school.”


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