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Tennessee AEM Amanda Callahan-Mims moves from archaeology field to STEM classroom

Posted on 06/21/2021 at 11:53 AM by Virginia Smith

Amanda Callahan-Mims at Space Camp
Amanda Callahan-Mims attended Space Camp for Educators in Huntsville earlier this month. There, she networked with several other CAP AEMs.

June 21, 2021

Meet Amanda Callahan-Mims. The next school year will mark her fifth year as a teacher. Before becoming an educator, Ms. Mims (as her students call her) worked as a Registered Professional Archaeologist (RPA). She has worked as an archaeologist for the National Park Service, the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research and at three former president’s homes (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe). As an archaeologist, she worked with elementary through college-aged students and found she enjoyed helping students understand new concepts and guiding them to "a-ha" moments. Now, she teaches at a Title I school in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she transformed the computer lab into a fully functioning STEM Lab complete with an Outdoor Classroom. "My students come from many diverse backgrounds, which are often underrepresented in STEM; therefore, I have made it my personal goal to single-handedly increase the number of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women and children from low-income families who later pursue a career in STEM." We asked her some questions about her teaching career and involvement as a CAP AEM. Her answers follow.

Tell us about your current school/organization and the grades you teach.

Spring Hill Elementary Community School (SHECS) is a Title I public school in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. A Community School is an initiative of the Knox Education Foundation (KnoxEd) to provide support to our community through partnership with local agencies, businesses, faith-based organizations and individuals to create long-term support for our students, families, the school and our neighborhood. SHECS is also a Project Grad school. We strive to foster change through education by supporting college and career access and support -- even at the elementary grade levels. 

I not only teach K-5 STEM at SHECS, but I also transformed the computer lab into a fully functioning STEM Lab complete with an Outdoor Classroom, which includes raised garden beds, large scale musical instruments, a weather station, a loom and enough seating for a whole class. Since our transformation from computer lab to STEM Lab, our school now offers robotics, 3D printing/TinkerCAD design, and coding /computer science as part of the STEM curriculum. We also explore the Engineering Design Process and STEM careers to provide a level playing ground for our students. I started various clubs at our school such as a Lego League Jr. team, a Gardening Club and Science Olympiad. I serve as our Leaders for Readers (L4R) On Site Coordinator (Reader Leader) through our aforementioned partnership with KnoxEd. Part of my duties as the L4R Reader Leader is that I match students with trained volunteers to provide positive 1:1 reading experiences to build literacy skills in first- through third-graders.

My students come from many diverse backgrounds, which are often underrepresented in STEM; therefore, I have made it my personal goal to single-handedly increase the number of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women and children from low-income families who later pursue a career in STEM.

What’s our plan moving forward? Well, currently we are working toward implementing the steps necessary to become a STEM Designated School through the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN). I have secured partnerships with NASA Goddard; the University of Tennessee (UTK) College of Engineering Center for Ultra-Wide-Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT); and the local branch of the 4-H STEM programming youth development.

How many years have you been an educator? Why did you became an educator and what keeps you in the field?

Amanda Callahan-Mims poses on rugged terrain as an archaeologist with the National Park Service at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Prior to teaching Ms. Mims, shown here on rugged terrain at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was an archaeologist.

This will be my fifth year teaching and my fourth year at SHECS as the STEM teacher. Prior to becoming a teacher, I was a Registered Professional Archaeologist (RPA). I have worked as an archaeologist for the National Park Service, the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research, at three former president’s homes (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe), as well as numerous commercial archaeological entities. As an archaeologist I have worked on sites across the country and abroad, often in rugged terrain and extreme weather conditions. 

One of my favorite things about being an archaeologist was working with students (elementary through college aged) and helping to shift their perspective. Often new archaeological students want to be the next Indiana Jones. I remember once when I was working on an oyster shell midden with some students. It was a typical August in Virginia — hot, dry, humid and no breeze. We had been excavating nothing but oyster shells for what seemed like an eternity. It went like this: dig the shells (which is not easy), put the shells in a bucket, weigh the shells, sample the shells, dump the shells, make field notes — repeat ad nauseum. 

After the third or fourth day of this, one particular student was overcome with the monotony of it all (I vaguely recall something about never wanting to see another oyster shell for the remainder of their life). I went over to the student and picked up a few shells from the “dump” pile. I told them that I understood that it seemed boring and fruitless and that I knew that this wasn’t how they imagined their first dig going. Then I told them to look at all the shells. How many oysters does one person need to eat to make a real meal out of it? I said, “These shells date back to the 1770s. The Revolutionary War is underway, the Continental Army is waging war against Great Britain.” 

I turned a few of the oyster shells over and examined them, showing the student the tool marks where they had been pried apart. “The last time someone touched these was over 220 years ago. We were still under British rule, fighting a war, and no one knew how it would end. Likely, these oysters were harvested by those who remained at home since most men of fighting age had left. You are looking at the hard work of women and children who are trying to survive in a difficult time and have no idea what lies ahead. These oysters likely saved them. Have you ever harvested oysters? Shucked them? It’s no easy task. These oysters tell us food was scarce and they were desperate. I mean would they be eating them if they had the choice to eat something that was easier to prepare?” 

That student’s eyes lit up. There it was! Their a-ha! moment. The simple shift of perspective was all they needed to change their outlook. Watching so many students over the years get their a-ha! moment is why I went on to pursue a career in education.

Please list awards/honors/achievements you have received as an educator that you would like to include.

  • Knox County Schools Elementary Teacher of the Year 2020-2021
  • Spring Hill Elementary Community School Teacher of the Year 2020-2021 
  • Authored and awarded over $50,000 in grants
  • Polly T. Lucas Endowed Space Academy for Educators Scholarship for the Space Camp for Educators Professional Development 2020 (delayed until 2021 due to COVID-19)
  • Kindergarten Physical Science Field Test Teacher for the Smithsonian Science Education Center Curriculum Developer
  • KCS@Home Content Creator for Kindergarten Science Week 2: Going on a Scavenger Hunt! (aired on our local PBS station)
  • Eduporium Featured Educator, June 2019
  • A Proclamation from the City of Knoxville by Mayor Madeline Rogero for Spring Hill's Budding Botanists, April 6, 2019

How many years have you been involved with Civil Air Patrol, and how did you hear about CAP’s AEM program?

This will be my third year as a CAP Aerospace Education Member (AEM). I will never forget how I heard about the CAP AEM program. I was at a district-wide professional development (PD) session, and I overheard someone talking about “flying a plane as part of a PD.” I literally walked right up to them and began what was essentially an interrogation! What do you mean you flew a plane? What is the PD? How did you sign up? Where did you do it? How much did this cost? I wrote down every detail they could give me on the back of a receipt I had in my pocket. As soon as I got back to my computer, the first thing I did was look up the CAP AEM. I immediately spent the $35 on my membership (I always tell people “It’s the best $35 I’ve ever spent!”). After that I waited until I got the much anticipated email about the CAP ORAU (Civil Air Patrol partners with the Oak Ridge Associated Universities to provide PD) Basic Aerospace Education/STEM Teacher Workshop Professional Development (which includes the Teacher Orientation Program (flight) that I had overheard discussed). The rest, as they say, is history!

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 teach about 500 K-5 students the Aerospace Connections in Education (ACE) program every year (during 20-21 we had to make some modifications). My students absolutely love the academic lessons, where they get to do the project-based learning activities (straw rockets, sled kites, gliders, paper airplanes, balloon rockets and hot air balloons). Since I teach STEM and we typically work in groups, the students frequently don’t have an end product that they can take home. These ACE lessons provide them with materials that they get to keep, which is amazing! 

We also utilize the STEM kits throughout the year. My kindergarten and first-grade students simply love the BeeBot/Code and Go Mouse Kits. My third- through fifth-graders had a blast exploring Renewable Energy and Spheros. My students have learned to be better problem solvers, work cooperatively and have the experience of getting to use these kits that we wouldn’t otherwise have. 

Please tell us about your collaboration at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, this summer with other AEMs.

Since I am the only STEM teacher in my school and one of only eight elementary school STEM teachers in my district I often feel like an island. Attending Space Camp for Educators this summer and getting to meet up with other CAP AEM teachers was like coming home! We talked about the lessons we use in our rooms, how we use them, which STEM kits we’ve ordered, which ones we want, and we talked a lot of “shop.” I’m pretty sure I recruited at least two new members while I was there! I had a great conversation with my flat mate about making balloon powered cars, specifically the wheels/axles! I told her my solution for the axles was to use smoothie straws (which are larger) and put a regular straw (smaller) inside of them for the axle. Then I 3D print the wheels (which we reuse every year) and they have a little nub that fits into the smaller straw’s hole. Things like this may seem like weird conversation starters, but for we STEM teachers this our passion! It was wonderful to be surrounded by people who get your science jokes, love your breadth of knowledge and have ideas that are useful for you to take back to the classroom. 

Why do you teach in the Aerospace Education/STEM area?

I love to teach STEM and Aerospace Engineering because my former career (as an archaeologist) was based in the sciences. Archaeology is one of those areas that is very multidisciplinary. I loved that about working in that field. I could be working with geomorphologists (soil experts) dealing with stratigraphy, running LIDAR, contacting geologists, then coming back to lab and creating ArcGIS files to cross-reference data. I think that working on so many sites and having academic discussions with so many different types of scientists really opened my eyes to just how diverse the field is. As I moved into my career as a STEM educator, I became even more aware how connected the sciences are. I want my students to have these experiences when they are younger because I often struggled as a high school student (and even in college) with what I wanted to do when I grew up. There are so many options that just aren’t part of the K-12 experience, and since I teach at a Title I school, I worry that my students won’t have the chance to explore these options if they aren’t offered before they graduate from high school. 

What is the best advice you have for a new AEM working with CAP programs and materials?

“Take chances, make mistakes and get messy! As my old parachute instructor used to say, look before you leap, and never jump to conclusions.”  -- Miss Frizzle

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

The first year I taught the CAP AEM curriculum, I had a new student who started pretty close to the beginning of the school year. He was a little quiet but friendly and kind of kept to himself. Well, we had been working for a few weeks on our airplanes, and it was the week before fall break. That’s when we had another (brand) new student join the class. He showed up right before the class came to me (for STEM/Specials class). So, all the other students have their projects they’ve been working on, and so I offer to let the brand new student use my “class model” that I made as I was demonstrating how to construct it. But, before I could go get it, the student who had been new at the beginning of the year comes up to the brand new student and says, “You can be my partner for this since you don’t have an airplane.” Then he says, “You see her? (me) She is the best teacher. You’re gonna love her. I was new at the beginning of the year and I was afraid, but you just wait and see — she’s gonna be your favorite. We do the best projects in here!” 

It was the most amazing feeling to know that I had had that kind of impact on a child that I only saw for 45 minutes once a week. I feel confident that the ACE curriculum we were using helped to contribute to that. Spending all that time working on character and learning to work cooperatively truly fostered change and empathy in my students. 

ACE student flies his foam glider Students paint ACE balsa gliders

Left and lower right, students work with CAP ACE program manipulatives. Top right, Ms. Mims participates in the ribbon cutting for the Outdoor Classroom at Spring Hill Elementary Community School. 


 

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