Donald White and Julie Eidson from Coweta County Schools join the podcast to talk about how they are leveraging strong community partnerships to enhance and support classroom instruction in middle and high school.

episode 103


Ashley Mengwasser: Welcome to another episode of Classroom Conversations. It's the platform for Georgia's teachers. I'm your host, Ashley Mengwasser, not a teacher, but a teacher admirer. You are the real MVPs, most valuable professionals. And this podcast series showcases just that. Classroom Conversations is presented by the Georgia Department of Education and partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our conversation today connects education and the workforce pipeline to examine how community partnerships can support student learning and ultimately help develop the workforce. My guest today hail from the Newnan, Senoia area, Coweta County to be exact. Here with me at GPB studios are Dr. Donald White, Science Content Specialist from Coweta County School System and Julie Eidson, sixth grade science teacher at East Coweta Middle School. Welcome Donald and Julie.

Donald White: Thanks for having us.

Julie Eidson: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Your smiles are so big today. I hear you're both proud to work in science education. So proud in fact, Donald's Twitter handle is @dwhitesciguy.

Donald White: Yeah. Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: I mean, that's pride and purpose right there.

Donald White: Absolutely. You have to be strategic when you're setting these things up, because they stay forever. 

Ashley Mengwasser: Julie, I was going to ask you how you wear your love of science education on your proverbial sleeve, but I see you wear it on your literal sleeve. Please describe your ensemble today for our audience.

Julie Eidson: Well, today I'm wearing my dinosaur dress.

Ashley Mengwasser: She said that right. A dinosaur dress. What does it entail?

Julie Eidson: Well, it's actually lots of dinosaurs.

Ashley Mengwasser: There are many.

Julie Eidson: But it's a great company. I'm really proud to wear it. It's a great company called Svaha that just focuses on dresses for women and girls with STEAM as their focus. So just want to support them.

Donald White: And it has pockets.

Ashley Mengwasser: And it has pockets.

Julie Eidson: No, we were talking about fossil fuels today and it just fit perfect with what I was talking about.

Ashley Mengwasser: It fits this too because you're science educators and you're here with us today.

Donald White: Absolutely, yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: Well Donald and Julie are clearly two great names in the field of science. Another great name, Albert Einstein. You've heard of him?

Donald White: I have.

Julie Eidson: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay, good. Just want to make sure he's familiar. He actually said this. I want your thoughts. Science is a wonderful thing, if does not have to earn one's living at it. Albert. Weigh in, Donald.

Donald White: So Albert, it has some great insight there, but one of the things that we want our students to know is that there's so many great options that are science-related that don't require a high-end science degree. So that's part of what we've been working on. And Julie's been a great partner with that. So we're trying to prove Einstein wrong there, which is always dangerous.

Ashley Mengwasser: Well before we dive in, I think it's good to know where our guests are coming from. And I mean that in terms of perspective and location. So tell us about your role within your school district. Donald will start there.

Donald White: So I'm the Science Content Specialist. I also manage our STEM/STEAM program. I'm a 23 year educator. I taught high school for 10 years and I've been doing this for the past 13. Served on every state science board you can imagine, Georgia Science Teachers Association, all of those kind of folks. So I've seen it all, done and all. I'm currently teaching for the University of West Georgia, go Wolves.

Julie Eidson: Shameless plug.

Donald White: Shameless plug. I teach chemistry to nursing students. So I still have my classroom. I love teaching and I love working with teachers who are nerds, like Julie.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's awesome. Well, Julie, you've been teaching middle school you told me for three years now, middle school science.

Julie Eidson: Right.

Ashley Mengwasser: What's unique about teaching at East Coweta Middle School?

Julie Eidson: I love East Coweta Middle, it feels like a family to me. I'm so excited to be there. My administration is great, very supportive and I just have a family atmosphere. My team is very positive and supportive. So I love it there.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. Well, onto the subject at hand, we're talking about the workforce pipeline today. And your students will be our workforce in, as soon as seven to eight years, if they take that path. So let's start high-level with mission and vision for this. How does working with community partners or local industries support classroom learning? You want to go first, Julie?

Julie Eidson: Sure. I was very fortunate to be part of the CIFT program. Coweta Industrial Fellowship of Teachers, and got to go and get some real hands-on experience at one of our industry partners. In Coweta County. And just got to really talk to their engineers and just talk to them and ask, "what are our kids missing?" "What kind of things do you need them to work?" And problem solving was one of the big things that we talked about. And so being able to take that back into my classroom and really help them understand, like, "okay, yeah, you did a great project" like STEM, for instance, we'll do a STEM activity and then they're able to just keep redesigning, go back and try again. So problem solving is really definitely something that I've brought a lot more attention to in my classroom.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's awesome. What are you seeing Donald?

Donald White: So from our side, my view of things is a little different than the classroom view of try to see districtwide. Those community partnerships are so important for lots of reasons. We definitely want to keep the businesses that we have in Coweta there and we want to attract more businesses like them in order to be able to keep our community viable, keep it growing, and provide the opportunities for employment that we want our students to have. So partnering with community partners like Coweta-Fayette EMC, who we're going to talk.

Ashley Mengwasser: Tell us about soon. Yeah.

Donald White: Yeah. With this project, it allows our teachers insight and access to the real world kind of problems that their kids are going to be solving, like you said, in seven to eight years. And so we feel like that they need access to those sooner rather than later, because I know as a 23 year educator, I have zero experience outside of the classroom. So I have no idea what it takes to be successful in the real world. And access to these community partners allows us to shift the paradigm of what the classroom experience should look like for our students. And you'll hear a little bit more about that shift and how that works. But that is the most important piece here, is that we're actually able to give our community what they need. And we're also feeding our teachers and our students at the same time. 

Ashley Mengwasser: You're describing it as a reciprocal relationship.

Donald White: Absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: That benefits them and you, and students. So let's dive into that. I think we need to know what this looks like in action. So share some of your current classroom projects, Julie, that you have with community partners.

Julie Eidson: I'm very excited to be working with Coweta-Fayette EMC. I brought a project that I wanted to do to Donald and talk to him about teaching the kids about alternative energy and just wanted to figure out the best way to do that. And so he partnered me with Coweta-Fayette EMC, for a project that I want to do about solar energy. Well, not just solar energy, just alternative energy in general. And so my students, they purchased me a weather station order for us to collect data. 

And so they just got installed yesterday, very excited about it, it's on the building. And so they're working with me to be able to work through that with a project with them. And so we're going to be collecting data throughout the year. And then eventually we're going to, hopefully be able to prove that East Coweta Middle School is a viable option for alternative energy, like solar energy is really what we're going to find out, but so... And then we're going to be able to hopefully have some presentations. My students are going to make presentations for EMC and the Coweta County Board of Education. I'm going to have them get in front of them and talk to them about maybe doing solar panels eventually.

Ashley Mengwasser: And this was all just born of you wanting to teach differently?

Julie Eidson: Yes. I think differently. I figured out, I don't necessarily think like other teachers sometimes, that's okay. But no, I just... I taught for 20 years, I taught elementary school. And so I did a lot of integrative education and being able to do things across the curriculum. And so this was a easy way for me to be able to tie in my weather units that I teach, but also solar energy, something that I'm really excited about learning and teaching.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm sure that translates to them too. Donald, anything to add about some of these projects with community partners, any other things in the works?

Donald White: So the thing is that when you get a project, especially a really good one, like Julie's gotten going on, that leads to snowballs. That these projects grow and other community partners see what's going on and say, "Hey, we want to do that too." So this project will be one of many that are going to be just like it, but in other different areas where kids and teachers are working with these community partners and providing these real results. The goal is for Julie students to present to our board, to community member, folks like that, present a real proposal. And this is something that those kids are going to do for the rest of their professional life is, you're going to come up with an idea, you have to present it and you have to defend it. 
So it wraps up all of those things that we really want it to do, all in one project. And when other community partners see the success that we're having, they really get excited about it because... Julie and I were talking about on the way up here, about the return on investment and that we actually have measurable returns on investments with projects like this, because this is not the first time that Coweta County has done something like this. We've been at this for a while now, but this is just another example. And this is part of that snowball. We work with other community partners and now we're getting Coweta-Fayette EMC, and now we're looking beyond Coweta-Fayette EMC. 

Julie Eidson: And the kids are really excited because they've been watching it as it develops. So first the box came into the room and they were really excited about, "what's in the big box?" And so then they saw it get put together and they came in the room and saw the big weather station, all put together. And yesterday they came in and it wasn't in the room. And so I showed them it out on the building and we downloaded the app to show the realtime weather and all the information that we're going to be using. So throughout the rest of the year, we're going to talk about not just weather, but the solar radiation and everything.

Ashley Mengwasser: All of that data. Well, are there any misconceptions about trying to teach curriculum in this way? You know the process with approaching these businesses and industries, Donald. Maybe let's start with that.

Donald White: So I think one of the misconceptions that teachers have is that when you're approaching an industry partner, the tendency is always to start with the ask for money. And what we've learned in Coweta County through our experience is that doesn't always work. Sometimes they don't have the money and sometimes they're not sure what the return on investment is going to be for that investment in your project or whatever it is that you're working on. So that what we've done is, when Julie came to me and said, "Hey, I'm interested in doing something with alternative energy. I want to do a project. I want it to be hands on." And then I said, "Okay, I know Coweta-Fayette EMC right now is in the process of advertising for solar power and electric vehicles."
And I said, "There's an opportunity there. Let's reach out to them and say, "Hey, we are going to do this with or without you, we would love to have you be partner in this."" And as that conversation turned, because they see right away, we are going to be talking about Coweta-Fayette EMC's programs, talking about the careers that they offer to their students. That's really hard for them to turn down because we all know that labor is an issue right now, everybody's looking for qualified applicants. Now here's an opportunity to get Coweta-Fayette into our classrooms, get them in there, working with our students, get them in there, basically prepping them for careers at Coweta-Fayette EMC. What company would not want to have direct access to future employees like that?

Ashley Mengwasser: Are the students interested in that?

Donald White: Absolutely. For a lot of reasons. When you talk to kids, even middle schoolers, they're still talking about, "I want to be a doctor, or lawyer or a football player." Those kind of things. And the reason that they say those things is because nobody has talked to them about any of the other opportunities that are out there, unless you've got a parent who is working in one of those companies, that's doing something interesting. You don't know that they're there.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's just about exposure.

Donald White: It's about exposure. And that's where that return on investment comes, that's where we got them to invest in us with the weather station. Because they could see a direct connection. We made it easy for them to see that connection and how it was going to pay off for them in the future. So if you're out there trying to figure out how to approach these companies, that's first thing you got to do is figure out, what are they doing? What are their needs? And say, "Hey, we want to help you with your needs." You flip that script. "We want to help you. And how can we do that?" And then later on you say, "Well, it'd be great if you're going to come and help us if we had this thing." And they'll be like, "Sure, let me write you a check for that," because now you've got them sold. So I think Julie was just brilliant coming up with this little piece and my job as a connector, that's all I did, was I connected Julie with somebody that I knew that was in the community.

Julie Eidson: And Maggie's coming in next week to do some lessons with the kids. I'm really excited about her being able to come in. 

Donald White: She's one of their engineers and community outreach partners. So that's the example of how they're actually going to interact with our students.
And we're going to take this and share this with other schools in the district and hopefully that they can replicate it at other schools at a level that will come close. It's not going to be as good as what Julie's doing.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's pretty incredible. I also think there's another synergy there. A lot of businesses actually have an education mission. And so they're probably looking for ways to fulfill that. So you reaching out probably solves that need for them.

Julie Eidson: They have some great resources already. Like the spark curriculum that they posted was great, that Maggie shared with me.

Donald White: That's from Green Power is one of their... All of the EMCs in the state of Georgia work through a Green Power initiative to advocate for teachers teaching some of this type of stuff. So they put resources together and Julie saw some of that, so I think that kind of sparked the idea.

Ashley Mengwasser: And there you were. Well this collaboration, it feels like a real solution and a boost of inspiration for teachers. I know Julie, I'm watching your eyes light up. You're building a community of learning in your classroom and with industry partners. So how has this approach reinvigorated teaching for you and also learning for your students, especially since COVID?

Julie Eidson: Yeah. The last couple years have been a little challenging, it's been a lot. And so it's been very challenging and especially when the kids were at home, it was very difficult with those connections. I definitely do better when the kids are in the classroom and being able to have those relationships, those are just really important to me. And so being able to do a project like this really just made me excited to be at work and to be there with the kids, and just something positive to focus my attention to. If I'm excited about something, I know that they're going to be excited about it too. So that.

Ashley Mengwasser: So you had this aha moment, it was a spark. It was a spark of creativity.

Julie Eidson: It was.

Ashley Mengwasser: And now it's caught fire. So you're just saying that, that translates to your students.

Julie Eidson: Absolutely. They're excited about the weather station and the project that we're doing... They don't even know what all we're doing. They're just excited about being there at school and learning.

Ashley Mengwasser: And being immersive in the process of discovery.

Donald White: And I think that the key part for that is that it's real. Because I think a lot of times teachers complain about the things that they have to do in their classrooms that they don't feel like are going to have a real impact. Some of the reports, the paperwork, that kind of stuff, you don't always see the, "Why do I have to do this?" It's the same thing that the kids ask. But when the kids are seeing this, "okay, we're going to collect this weather data," that they could just go and Google. We could just look it up. But you say, "No, no, this is our data. This came from our weather station."

Ashley Mengwasser: "We're tracking it."

Donald White: "We're tracking it."

Ashley Mengwasser: "We're reporting on it."

Donald White: You're reporting on it. We're putting this out for the world to see, "Hey, this is East Coweta Middle School's weather station. We own this." That makes it real for the kids too. And I think that, that's some of that professional renewal that comes along with doing something like this. Now, Julie is not your run-of-the-mill teacher, but she has a lot of the problems that other teachers have. And COVID sucked the life out of education, especially science education. Science is about doing, and for so long we weren't able to even put hands on things in the classroom when we were actually in the classroom. So this is renewing what I know Julie loves about science education, is that doing. And for me, as a science leader, working with someone like Julie and us not having conversations about the things we can't do, it's about the things, "Hey, how are we going to do this? This is going to be great."
So we we're pushing through those barriers, because we just brought a new energy.

Ashley Mengwasser: Right. To just say, "what if?"

Donald White: And what if we had a company backing us? A large industry backing us? And that's what it feels like. You have those conversations with administrators and they're like, "I don't know if... How this is really going to work for us?" Then I turn over my shoulder and there's Coweta-Fayette EMC standing in our corner saying, "Hey, we think this is important." It's a lot harder for people to say no, when you've got that kind of clout in your corner. And that is a great feeling, especially coming out of what we've been coming out of, because it has been so close.

Julie Eidson: Well it's not only affecting the students in my class, but like last night at the football game, I had three teachers stop me and was like, "that's really cool," because I'd emailed them about the weather station and told them to download the app so that they could see the data from our school. And so the teachers were excited about the new program. And then the students, I had a student stop me and show me how he downloaded the app. And his mom was right there, so we were able to have a conversation about what was going on in the classroom at the football game. So it's really exciting.

Ashley Mengwasser: I want to hear their testimonials. Have you heard any bits and phrases, and reaction from your students that have stood out to you about this really going to make an impact with them?

Julie Eidson: It's all pretty new still, but just being able to have something that's right there, that's their school and it's named East Coweta Middle, it says that on the app. And that they're able to find it and for it to just be real for them.

Ashley Mengwasser: That makes perfect sense. Well let's just get right to it. Teachers from school systems across the state will probably want to replicate this, whether they're in an urban or a rural area with massive commercial business or small business. What strategies can you share? What's the step one and what can they do after that?

Julie Eidson: The biggest thing for me was to think of something that I'm excited about. And so if it's something that I'm excited about and I would just encourage other teachers to think of whatever they're excited about, whatever they're teaching in their curriculum, doesn't have to be science. And so whatever they're excited about, find some sort of project that they could bring to a Donald, if they have a Donald at their school system, or if not, to community leaders.

Donald White: I think with that, we talk a lot about opportunities that my teachers don't need another opportunity to do something different in their classroom. They have too many opportunities as it is. What we need are strategies. What we need are strategies that I can take to local businesses that are going to solve their problems and solve our problem at the same time. So look at it from that standpoint, even if you don't have somebody like me, whose job it is to go out and advocate for you, you can do that. But the way you do that is you say, "Hey, what are your biggest problems right now?" And "Okay, here's how we can help solve those problems."
Because they're all going to say roughly the same thing. We can't find enough qualified workers to come do the jobs that we need them to do. And the ones that we can find, they don't have the skills that we need them to have. "Okay. Well, what are those skills? Tell me what specifically, spell it out." "Okay. Here's how we're going to address those skills, doing this project. Now, in order to pull off this project, we're going to need a little help from you. That means sending your people into the building, maybe writing a check-"

Ashley Mengwasser: You really are a connector. 

Julie Eidson: Yes. And that comes from... That's my mission. Is to help connect folks like Julie, with folks who can help her do her job. And that's where that comes from. So it's a strategy, not an opportunity. Here's a problem solving strategy for our community, for your business. Let me help you solve that problem. And then it takes folks like Julie, who are able to look at the curriculum and not be trapped by it, to see ways through it so that she can teach multiple standards at the same time, not trying to teach a week on one standard in a week on another standard. She's trying to do it all together so that it's in depth. And it means something to the kids and it means something to the community. So if you can flip that switch, that's when the magic happens-

Ashley Mengwasser: Well, back to your strategies, Julie, anything else you think folks should try?

Julie Eidson: Just be inspired or just being excited about something again. Being excited about school after the last couple years has been a lot for me. Just being able to be excited about going to work again. But just don't take no for an answer, that might be persistence, maybe. And if someone says no to you, then find someone else. If it's in your community, you have to look at what resources are out there. And for me, EMC made sense because I wanted to teach about solar energy. So that just made sense for me. So it depends on what your interests are.

Donald White: Yeah. And I think that a lot of times teachers, because of the day to day grind, that is education. They have a hard time taking the blinders off to be able to see the resources that are out there, that are around them. It doesn't have to be a big industry like Coweta-Fayette EMC. It can be just your local shopping stores and places like that. They all have issues that they're trying to address. And if you provide them with a strategy to address that, they're going to come running, so-

Ashley Mengwasser: They're going to come running.

Donald White: And I think, Julie being willing to step outside of her comfort zone to being willing to admit, "Hey, I don't know everything, but I don't need to know everything. We're going to find people that are going to help me figure this out."

Julie Eidson: Right. Going into, I had no idea. I didn't understand solar energy, how it works. I still don't test me on it. I'm still learning. But I have no problem with saying that I don't understand this, let's figure this out.

Donald White: Yeah. That's a barrier that once you get around that, the world really opens up for you. So.

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow. Well, I think you said the words. They'll come running. Thank you for sharing this paradigm. Dr. Donald White and Julie Eidson from Coweta County Schools. Thanks for being here, you guys. That concludes this episode of Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. I'm Ashley Mengwasser. One last thing, you're a great teacher. Don't forget it. Goodbye for now.