Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer

When a problem arises, some people are thwarted by the challenge. However, creative minds perceive an opportunity. Led by STEM Coordinator Jennifer Love, that’s exactly how Macon County Schools (MCS), community partners, area industry leaders, Macon County Commissioners and sponsors resolved a space issue for STEM’s after school program. Setting a great example, they modeled the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) mission statement: “creating a community of problem solvers to lead Macon County into the future” ; and the “Why” statement: “To empower students to think critically about issues facing our community and problem solve real solutions so that our home (local to global) will thrive and adapt to a continually changing world.” 

Their collaborative efforts led to the school board’s approving Love’s request to pursue space and funding for several STEM programs; Tommy Jenkins and the Macon County Economic Development Commission (EDC) donating space at the Macon County Industrial Park; and the commissioners approving the transaction. EDC checked with their original lender and found they were past the 20-year period to enforce certain requirements, and this cleared the way to sign a lease with MCS. EDC Director Jenkins noted that STEM is related to economic development.

 “We’ve been working for a while with the STEM program of Macon County public schools,” said Jenkins at the Aug. 14 Commissioners’ meeting. “We have some space available that they can use for their activities, particularly their robotics program. We are clear to sign a lease with them [just for use of the building]. They won’t be paying any rent, and it is about 1,100 square feet.” 

At the Aug. 21 board meeting, MCS was set to review the lease and discuss funding the anticipated $50 monthly utility bill. 

“The space will be used for this next school year for the Franklin Makin’ Bots team that is a high school robotics team and TekTone has been gracious in allowing us to use a space in their new facility,” said Love. “But last year we discovered very quickly that using drills and saws in their conference room is not . . . conducive to working on this robot. Our team has grown from 15 students to 25 to 30 students, so we need a little bit larger space.”

Love is also excited about the after school drone program funded in part by the Golden Leaf Foundation Grant which expires in December. The focus of the Golden Leaf Foundation grant is 6th to 12th grade because it is looking specifically at STEM as a pathway to careers in the region. Because of the intermediate school, they let Love “bump it down to fifth grade.”

The drones, curriculum, materials and supplies are sitting in Love’s office ready for their new home. MCS School Superintendent Chris Baldwin and Love were among those touring the space Monday with Lowe’s to begin planning construction of the robotics and drones workshop. Lowe’s has awarded their Helping Hands grant for this cycle. 

“I’m excited about the drones because I do see a lot of areas of application for that,” said Love. “Duke Energy might be able to hire you to inspect new poles they are putting outside. If somebody gets lost on the Appalachian trail, you can put a heat sensor on a drone and fly it over the trail and locate them by the heat signature of the  person. There is just so much – looking at crops – pest control, and fire fighting. Taking that technology and figuring out ‘well, what do I like to do, and how can I make what I enjoy doing into a job or career?’”

 “We are trying to look at business and industry in our community and find ways that we can provide extra opportunity and training for students in the community,” said Love. “So, some of the stuff is more “teckie” such as robotics and drones, but everything that I try to choose for an after school exploration, whether it be a field trip during the day or any kind of grants that we accept, hopefully can connect to a career in our region. My focus has been career fairs, after school enrichment experiences, STEM-E Clubs and implementing the professional development needed to build our STEM foundation in the classroom.”

Business and community investment

Area companies and sponsors approached MCS to offer suggestions and resources to help them before Love arrived and continue still today. Most activity is after school because she says the experts are the community. She has been with the STEM program for two years and has seen companies participating in different ways. Some donate time, space, employee resources or mentorship.

“The Business Advisory Committee really helped by communicating to us their needs,” said Love. “One member of the committee I met is going to go talk to Franklin High School Science teacher Kate McMahan. And she’s going to base her classroom rules for the year based on what he would expect, and what he needs from employees. So a lot of what they were saying is we need students who can write, answer the phone, show up on time, know how to type – just basic stuff – since he says they’re coming and they’re not knowing that.”

There is a STEM Community Donation Fund where companies and individuals can donate and designate if they desire. John Edgeman of Franklin Tubular has been a champion of STEM from the beginning and sends $200 to the fund each month, giving Love flexibility to disperse funds. One teacher may need spaghetti and hot glue for an after school Olympiad Club, while another may need Love to pay for a substitute teacher so he can attend a workshop. Another donor may want their $50 expended just for robotics.  

“The people who are mentoring my robotics team are people from TekTone and Drake Software and volunteers from the community. So, they are the ones who are coming in and teaching our kids. I have a group of people who fly drones and who help at the airport and they have expressed an interest in this program.”

James Ivey, an engineer at TekTone came to Love because the company really wanted to help with the STEM program. Tektone sponsors Makin’ Bots, the high school robotics team. Six of their employees make a huge time commitment from 4 to 6 p.m. practically every other night during the build season to work with the students.

“It is a value of ours at TekTone to give back to our community in positive ways,” said Ivey. “We want to be a part of what makes our county a great place to live and do business. In the STEM program, under the leadership of Jennifer Love, we saw an outstanding opportunity to help out with a quality educational effort, which seeks to grow our community in an important and very relevant way. Robotics, in particular, is motivational for students and entails many technology-based knowledge areas and skills. And certainly, we see our involvement as a win-win situation. Some of the students we are working with and getting to know now may well be individuals we will hire, hopefully, in the future.”

 Challenges for educators and students

Love has used Mountain View Intermediate for pilot programs partly because it was her home-based school for seven years. After coming from the Highlands Biological Center where she served as director, she also brought her passion for water and the health of our environment. She was able to work with teachers and the administrator for STEM night, STEM career fair and other projects. 

Other schools are becoming more receptive. Love has recently met with Macon Early College whose flexible Friday afternoon schedule may allow students to be good candidates. East Franklin is planning STEM Family night there, and South Macon would also like to host STEM family night. Highlands School does a STEM family night, as well. Love says she is excited to do Littlebits Kits space engineering boxes at the elementary school media centers.

“This time of year is crazy trying to get everything up and rolling. Like, ‘here’s your kits and go forth.’ When teachers see what that looks like, they begin to say “I can teach that if offered as an elective during the day. It’s hard because we don’t have a lot of teachers in computer science and scheduling is always an issue. We don’t have a lot of teachers who are comfortable with robotics. So, I want this to be in the school day. I think that’s what needs to happen and that’s why I’ve been touring some of the STEM schools in the region. We need money for subs to allow teachers to leave the classroom and go do professional development. It’s just a day where they take a class to introduce them to STEM or over the summer. It does cost for food and hotel when they go train.”  

Love says once the comfort level is built in the schools it would be “awesome” and then every student can choose to participate.  She hopes the training and computer courses build up a comfort level in the schools where teachers will want to teach an elective at the high school level.

The present lack of transportation after school is a limiting factor for some students or if they have sports, work or other activities. It makes it difficult for them to participate in robotics. Public transportation is also an issue since Macon Transit stops service at 5 p.m., and there is one Lyft drive in the area who operates evenings only two days a week.

“We do internships and that’s one of the metrics that we are trying to grow,” said Love. “I am getting some pushback from employers because of liability. So, they are reluctant to take on a student if they are below 18 and most of them are. But the high school has been growing that program, so the folks over there have been working to encourage students and working with scheduling. And it’s during the day, so at Union we did have a student who needed help with transportation. So we bought bus passes, so that Macon Transit could pick them up at Union and take them to their internship and back home.”

Other STEM programs and opportunities

“We’ve been raising money for Muddy Sneakers, a science, math and environmental education program that we are going to be doing this year with 180 students at Mountain View,” said Love. “Coweeta Hydrologic Lab, the Franklin Daybreak and Noonday Rotary have contributed to Muddy Sneakers as well as Franklin United Methodist Church.”

There is another grant through the Cherokee Preservation Foundation called STEM-E, and the E stands for entrepreneurship. It provides funds for professional development and materials and has a big push for little clubs at each elementary school. Love says there is a club at every school in the county except Union. 

Franklin Ford, Macon County Library, Bartram Trail Society, and the Humanities Council have assisted with partnerships, funding and key exhibits. 

Mainspring Conservation Trust has assisted with field trips and robotics as well as biology and water conservation projects along with Duke Energy, Lewis Penland, Western Carolina University and many others listed at

The North Carolina Arts Council granted funds to bring Hobey Ford’s shadow puppetry program to all MCS fourth graders last year.

Businesses have been treated to a tour of the high school and were amazed because they had no idea of the opportunities and look forward to the transition to their work places. 

Regina Ash from Swain County organized Manufacturing Day where 15 students along with teachers from Jackson, Swain and Macon were sent on a bus tour of several businesses and industries in the area.     

  Golden Leaf Foundation money was invested in an externship for 10 teachers. The tour began at the Drake Education building that was donated for the day. Some went to Shaw, Tektone, Entegra Bank, and Drake Enterprises took several to the different aspects of Drake businesses. At the end of the day, the teachers were debriefed and asked what they might be able to integrate into their classrooms.