EPIC’s STEM Certification

Mill Creek High School’s EPIC (Experimental, Project-based, Innovative, Collaborative and Cross-curricular) program has been around since 2016, and ever since then it has always been a goal for the program’s leaders to get a STEM certification for the program. And just before Winter Break, they succeeded.

“The EPIC program is in its fifth year.” says Kelly Dyar , “The program was an idea from our principal Jason Lane, with its initial design by Jason Lane, Chesley Cypert, and Lacey Jakes. Marjorie Hammond and I were two of the initial teachers with Lacey Jakes that first year and the program has continued to grow and evolve over time.”

The program has always been STEM-based, using cross-curricular teaching styles and Project Based Learning (PBL) to teach its students problem solving.

“The program is a response to STEM industry calls for employees who have both a solid academic foundation and “soft” skills (e.g., interpersonal communications, working with others in a team) along with critical thinking skills,” says the EPIC page on Mill Creek High School’s Academic Directory.

Assistant Principal Lacey Jakes says that EPIC was also conceived because of responses Mill Creek High School students gave to the career interest inventory they took in eighth grade.

“We saw a strong, strong correlation with students, rising ninth graders in particular, were interested in engineering or a science field,” Jakes said.

This observation sparked the idea of creating a STEM program that could engage and cultivate the aspirations of students interested in jobs in the STEM field.

Jakes provides assistance to the members of the EPIC team, and has gotten a close look at the process taken to get the STEM certification and the way things work in a typical EPIC classroom. Thus, she has respect and admiration for the staff and the program’s teaching methods.

“I feel very passionately that the teaching and learning that occurs in the EPIC program is amazing. I sometimes even say if I had learned this way I think it would have made a big difference for me as well,” Jakes said.

Students in EPIC spend a typical school day with teachers from other courses visiting each other in order to help teach the content and encourage the students to connect the content of the different curriculums.

Sarah Chau is a sophomore in the EPIC program, and she observes that the teaching styles of EPIC are both similar and different to the teaching styles of a traditional classroom.

“When we learn topics, we do assignments that relate to the class and topic. Our lessons and assignments focus on connections between subjects,” says Chau.

When EPIC uses Project Based Learning to teach its students, it also ties in its cross-curricular standards. Meaning that the different elements of the project utilize understanding of different courses’ content.

STEM journals are notebooks EPIC students use to document the different STEM and engineering concepts that they learn, and especially to record their process while working on different projects, specifically The Engineering Design Process (EDP).

The Engineering Design Process is the name of the model used by STEM to teach problem-solving and critical thinking, and ever since the STEM journals debuted, the recording of the EDP in STEM journals has been a big part of a student’s grade on a project, and an integral part of displaying a student’s understanding of their work, what they need to improve on regarding their work, and how EPIC operates.

“EPIC is cross-curricular because all core classes are very tightly intertwined, meaning students will use skills from all four classes (Math, Science, Engineering and ELA) to complete their task or project. Students use a tool called the Engineering Design Process to sequence how they are going to approach a project, by defining problems, researching it (the problem), and coming up with ideas, testing and building the ideas, and finally checking if there is something to improve or change (about the solution you came up with),” said EPIC Junior Gabriel Amezquita Mendina.

The cross-curricular teaching style, the EDP, and PBL, are all STEM standards set by the Georgia Department of Education that must be met if an education program wants to become STEM certified, and the program being reviewed needs to have existed for at least three years. All of these standards must be met in order for a STEM certification to be granted.

STEM officials from the Georgia Department of Education provide multiple pre-certification visits to the program being reviewed, each one being months or up to a year apart, and each time they observe the students and ask them questions about their classes and their content, as well as observing how teachers are with the students.

The officials had a first visit where they observed the program and gave feedback based on those observations. They then had a second visit–which was originally meant to be in April of 2020 but got rescheduled because of COVID-19 complications– in which they made even more observations and even more feedback.

This feedback is referred to as “Grows and Glows”, where the triumphs and short-comings the students and staff are highlighted. The staff and program would be adjusted according to these bits of feedback.

One of the “grows” that was presented to the EPIC team involved the STEM journal.

Dyar says that the STEM journal was always an important part of using the EDP in the classroom, but the program wanted to develop its uses further so that it could better reflect EPIC.

“Engineering has always required a journal to document the Engineering Design Process on projects, although the level of detail earlier in the program was not as in depth. Over time, with feedback and guidance from state STEM resources, we grew the STEM journals to be more all encompassing of our STEM cross-curricular nature. We have found it to be an extremely useful tool for our students,” Dyar said.

After this second STEM visit, the EPIC team received news that they might be ready for a third and final visit. Usually schools seeking STEM certifications get more than three visits.

EPIC was unique in the regard that three was all they needed.

That final visit was Dec 8, 2020. And not long after the officials left, the EPIC teachers and students received the news that EPIC was now STEM certified.

This makes Mill Creek High School one of only fifteen high schools in all of Georgia to receive a STEM certification.

Dec 8, 2020 was a historic date for Mill Creek High School.

The emotional responses to this news seem to unanimously be ones of pride and excitement,
such as Assistant Principal Jakes’ reaction, who has been greatly affected by the amount of time she has spent associated with EPIC.

“I absolutely do [feel pride for EPIC’s STEM certification]. The EPIC teachers meet as grade levels twice a week, and in addition they meet once a month as a whole department, and I try my best to be as present in each of the meetings as I possibly can be,” Jakes said.

Principal Lane, much like Jakes, was proud of the EPIC team, and happy to have been associated with everyone in EPIC.

“Obviously I’m proud of every program in our school that gets certified. We have a lot of our career and technology programs that get what they call industry certified, things like marketing, engineering, all of them . . . I’m very proud of EPIC and what they’ve achieved. I probably feel a little bit of ownership with the achievement because having been involved with creating the program from the very beginning of it. There’s a sense of pride just because you feel you have a very small piece of that in there, but let’s be honest, all the work goes to the students and the teachers,” said Lane.

Dyar, as the department chair of all things EPIC, is of course proud of her team and her students.

“We are very excited that EPIC was awarded STEM certification by the Georgia DOE. It is the result of hard work by both the teachers and the students!” Dyar said.

Kimberly Haygood is only a sophomore in the EPIC program, but she was still very happy for everyone.

“I was so excited for the certification, the time spent with EPIC definitely affected the reaction because everyone there deserved the award,” said Haygood.

The Mill Creek High School is now among the handful of Georgia schools to have a STEM certified learning program. Those who have accompanied the program during this journey are eager yet unsure as to what the future holds for Mill Creek High School and EPIC.

“The certification will be a benefit to our students as they apply to colleges and careers. EPIC will continue to do what it has done best – use the Engineering Design Process to continually improve and learn, both with our students and our teachers,” says Dyar.

STEM certification: The Georgia Department of Education is proud to offer STEM and STEAM Certification to recognize schools that have implemented a culture of innovation, interdisciplinary instruction, and business and community partnerships. Schools have a choice between two models for certification: Whole school or Program. Program certification indicates that the school has selected a group of students to participate in their STEM or STEAM programs. Schools determine the criteria for student selection in Program certified schools. All STEM and STEAM schools have the opportunity to reapply for certification every five years.
Engineering Design Process (EDP): A tool used by STEM engineering students to track their process while finding a solution to a problem. The EDP is identified by the acronym D.E.S.I.G.N.–Define the need, Explore the research, Search for solutions, Illustrate the best solution, Give it a try, and Need any Changes.
Project-Based Learning (PBL): A teaching style employed by STEM education, in which students learn through actively engaging in and executing solutions to real-life situations.
Soft Skills: Skills that allow a person to interact with other people in a harmonious and effective way.
STEM journal: notebooks EPIC students use to document the different STEM and engineering concepts that they learn, and especially to record their process while working on different projects, specifically The Engineering Design Process (EDP)
EPIC: Experimental, Project-based, Innovative, Collaborative and Cross-Curricular