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Suzanne Costner, Tennessee AEM, uses CAP programs to introduce young learners to STEM fields

Posted on July 15, 2020 at 7:56 PM by Virginia Smith

Suzanne Costner and her students tour static displays at an air show
Suzanne Costner, STEM coordinator and library media specialist in Maryville, Tennessee, and her students visit an air show.

July 15, 2020

Meet Suzanne Costner, library media specialist and STEM coordinator at Fairview Elementary School in Maryville, Tennessee. She joined Civil Air Patrol in 2012 as an Aerospace Education Member (AEM) after attending a teacher workshop. She teaches in the aerospace education/STEM area in order to help students who may not have had experience in aviation and aerospace, something that has always fascinated her. She says fun and engaging activities will help her introduce her young learners to STEM fields, a growing area that will "offer many jobs when they reach the age to be jobseekers." Costner, the 2017 Civil Air Patrol National Teacher of the Year, used the ACE lessons while running a summer reading camp for her school district. She combined the lessons with books about aerospace and aviation. "When they found out that we were reading books about rockets and hot air balloons and then launching our own foam rockets or making balsa gliders, they were eager to come in each day." This year, when stay-at-home guidance because of COVID-19 closed schools, she managed a curbside library book checkout program for her school.  We asked her some questions about her teaching career and her work as a  Civil Air Patrol AEM. Her answers follow.

Tell us about your school and the grades you teach.

I currently teach at Fairview Elementary School in Maryville, Tennessee. We are a K-5 school in the Blount County School District. I am the school library media specialist and STEM coordinator. I am the Civil Air Patrol's Aerospace Connections in Education (ACE) coordinator, the robotics club sponsor, and the Hour of Code sponsor. I also collaborate with the fourth- and fifth-grade science teachers on STEM labs for their students as well as working with all classes on green screen projects.


How many years have you been an educator?


I have been an educator for 33 years, in settings from pre-kindergarten through community college. After I graduated from college, I worked for the Department of the Army as a teacher and then assistant director of the Ft. Myer Child Development Center in Virginia. A few years later I moved to North Carolina and taught in a pre-kindergarten program. While there, I was invited to teach continuing education courses at Fayetteville Technical Community College as part of their certification program for daycare workers. Once I moved back to Tennessee and completed graduate school, I taught in elementary schools for 12 years. I had always wanted to work in the school library, and so I earned my library science degree and moved into the school library for the 2008-09 school year and have been there ever since. Over the years I have also worked as a summer camp counselor, a tutor, a Red Cross instructor, and director of a Read to Be Ready summer program. My favorite place to work with students is in the library or the STEM lab.


Please list awards/honors you have received as an educator.

  • Educator in Residence for the Middle Tennessee State University Teaching with Primary Sources Program 2014
  • Civil Air Patrol’s ACE Teacher of the Year 2015
  • Fairview Elementary named ACE School of the Year 2015
  • Excellence in Teaching Award from East Tennessee Historical Society 2015
  • Humanities Tennessee Outstanding Educator Award 2016
  • Civil Air Patrol’s ACE Coordinator of the Year 2016
  • Blount County Schools Tech Innovator Teacher of the Year 2016-17
  • Tennessee Air Force Association Chapter Award for Aerospace Teacher of the Year 2017
  • Tennessee Air Force Association State Award for Aerospace Teacher of the Year 2017
  • Civil Air Patrol’s Tennessee Wing Teacher of the Year 2017
  • Civil Air Patrol’s Southeast Region Aerospace Education Teacher of the Year 2017
  • Civil Air Patrol’s National Aerospace Education Teacher of the Year 2017

Please describe the Civil Air Patrol programs you participate in and why you participate. What benefits do your students get from the CAP programs you use?


I use the ACE curriculum and the CAP STEM Kits with my students. The ACE lessons support the curriculum standards the teachers are required to cover, and my use of the lessons helps to introduce or reinforce content and skills that the students need. The STEM Kits provide hands-on materials for extending the lessons or offering additional opportunities such as the robotics clubs for the students. Both programs expose the students to aerospace and aviation topics and STEM fields that they may one day wish to pursue in college or careers.


What role do you play in coordinating the ACE Program at your school?

I am the school’s ACE coordinator and lead the majority of the lessons myself with the students. A few of the lessons are set aside for school-wide STEAM Days that coincide with the ACE Lift-off (kick off program for the year) and final celebration. For those lessons, I work with the STEM committee to gather the materials needed and make sure that the teachers leading each activity understand the concepts and have everything they need.

How many years have you been an AEM, and how did you get involved with Civil Air Patrol?

I joined the Civil Air Patrol as an AEM in 2012, as part of the University of Tennessee Aerospace Workshop for Teachers. After completing the basic workshop that summer and the advanced workshop the next summer, I began using the STEM Kits and ACE curriculum with my students.

Why do you teach in the aerospace education/STEM area?

I have always been interested in aerospace and aviation. I had family members who worked for NASA and fell in love with flying at an early age. My students may not have those experiences, but I can involve them in lessons with model airplanes, robotics and similar topics and help them develop an interest in STEM or aerospace. Besides supporting their science teachers’ efforts and providing fun and engaging activities, I can also introduce them to the possibility of careers in STEM fields --  which are a rapidly growing area that will offer many jobs when they reach the age to be jobseekers.
What is the best advice you have for a new AEM working with CAP programs and materials?

I would advise anyone new to the program to start small and not get overwhelmed. There is so much to choose from that it may seem intimidating, and trying to do it all at once is not possible. Choose one STEM Kit to use with a class, or work with a grade-level team to use the ACE lessons. Then, gradually add more as you see what appeals to your students and what works best with your own style.  

Please describe how the end-of-year stay at home restrictions changed how you do your job, if so. How did you make the best of the situation for your students?


When we were required to move to “distance learning” for the fourth quarter of the school year, it limited the normal function of library class. I was able to record videos and find additional content to create lessons to share with the various grade levels each week, but the students were not able to browse the shelves and look for books. The lessons mirrored what we would have done in school as closely as possible. I provided an introduction and background information, then the video content, then guidance on a reflection/response to the lesson. Students were able to share Google docs with me, email me, or have their parents email me with their written responses and drawings. I also offered curbside library check-out twice a week. Families could request books through an online form, and then I would meet them in front of the school and hand them a bag of books. I made a video greeting for the kindergarten teachers to share with their students because parents said that their children were missing all the teachers and wanted to see them. I also recorded a video from the principal to all the students, and it was sent out to everyone. One thing I was not able to simulate online was our year-end STEAM Day. Since we could not build our rockets or do some of the other activities, I went back through the ACE lessons and pulled out some that we do not always have time for during the regular school year and included them as part of the library lessons that I sent out.

Please tell an anecdote of a rewarding experience you have had working with students or colleagues using CAP programs.


We had a new family transfer to our school. There were two brothers, one in third grade and one in fifth. The third-grader had always been a strong student, but the fifth-grader was not as excited about school. He became very involved in the robotics club and wanted to discuss robots with his classmates and the teachers, but he also began talking about them at home. His father called and asked to speak with me. He said that his fifth-grader had never wanted to talk about school before and had never been enthusiastic about going to school or about any of his classes. He complimented our school on offering hands-on activities like the robots that could build a student’s excitement about learning. We would never have had the opportunity to offer the robotics club without the STEM Kit.

Is there anything that we didn't ask that you'd like to say for this focus on an AEM?

I have also used the ACE lessons while running a summer reading camp for our district. The camp was required to have a theme, so we went with STEAM as our overall concept and called it “Club Spark” because we would spark their creativity and learning. The kids who attended were not happy to be there at first because they knew they were supposed to work on their reading, and they thought it would be a lot of worksheets and tests. But when they found out that we were reading books about rockets and hot air balloons, and then launching our own foam rockets or making balsa gliders, they were eager to come in each day. They journaled about their experiences, wrote their own stories, and checked out more books from the library about each topic. The state evaluator who came to check on the camp said that we should teach other districts how to use our approach. It worked so well that we repeated the program the next year with a different set of students.

Teacher Suzanne Costner assists student with STEM project
Suzanne Costner enjoys teaching in the aerospace/STEM arena at Fairview Elementary School. Costner is ACE Program Coordinator for her school.



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