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STEM Superstar Covey Denton shares strategies for funding your classroom dreams!

On this episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, we talk to somebody who is very near and dear to my heart. Meet my heart sister, Covey Denton, who is one of my STEMspirations. Covey is truly one of the best STEM teachers in the country, and she knows an awful lot about how to get your classroom funded. I've followed her for years on the Everyday STEM Teacher Group on Facebook. Most recently, I was thrilled to share the stage with her this summer at Steve Spangler's Science in the Rockies, and I was so impressed with the way that she laid out sort of the whole mysterious grant writing process for teachers to help them figure out how to build their classrooms.

Covey Denton has been teaching science for many years, and in that time has secured over $100K in grants for her classroom. Her students have won numerous awards, including first place in the Scholastic Tech4Innovation competition, first place in the Celebrate the Mouse Video Research Essay competition, Regional Winners for the Exploravision competition in 2019 and 2020, semi-finalists for the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition in 2020 and 2021 and a grand prize winner in the Citgo Discovery Education Fueling Education competition in 2020. She has a bachelor's and master's in biomedical engineering from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a master's in STEM education through the NASA STEM Endeavor program at Adams State University.

[01:26] - Covey Denton's Journey

  • Covey explains her diverse career path, starting from biomedical engineering and moving into making artificial heart valves and creating cochlear implants for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. From there she wound up being a technology specialist for the state.

  • Covey's journey into teaching includes homeschooling, unconventional teaching pathways, a Master's in Education, and achieving NASA's Endeavor STEM certification. She currently teaches science and STEM across all grade levels.

So I was actually able to take NASA STEM classes and learn STEM education from some of the best and the brightest out there. And I began incorporating those practices within my classroom.

Covey has taught in public schools, in charter schools, and private schools, and she's had the opportunity to teach everything from preschool all the way to seniors in high school. This school year she is teaching AP biology, physics, and high school STEM while stepping into a brand new role as the STEM coordinator. In that role, she'll be coordinating after school programs, several competition teams, including Science Olympiad and Robotics, and having a classroom of her own, where she gets to do STEM every day.

[04:04] - Contribution to Kesler Science Escape Rooms

  • Covey shares how she pitched the idea of writing escape rooms to Chris Kesler at a conference.

  • We explore escape rooms' effectiveness in formative assessments and engaging students

So it's really fun to sort of take worksheets that you might use as a formative assessment and turn them into clues, because I feel like the data is much more authentic because you have kids really putting forth their best effort to solve these clues and it gives you the opportunity to sort of reteach in the form of a hint. So if a student's having a problem with a clue and it's the science content, not the clue that's the problem, you have the opportunity then to reteach the science really quickly to a student who might not have gotten it the first time. And that, to me, is exactly the purpose of a formative assessment. And so I love using escape rooms in my classroom. My students love it when I do escape rooms in my classroom. And through Kesler Science, I've gotten the opportunity to share with a much wider audience of educators.

[06:24] - Perspective on STEM Education

  • Covey discusses STEM as a departure from traditional teaching, fostering problem-solving and diverse solutions as students are empowered to collaborate for creative solutions.

Dr. Diane: So let's talk about STEM for a moment. I know that you, like me, have been influenced by Steve Spangler and sort of the way that he shares things in terms of we build connections through authentic experiences. Can you offer some examples, first of all, of how you see STEM and then of how you've applied it across the curriculum with children of all ages?

Covey: So I see STEM as a huge deviation from how a lot of our subjects are taught. A lot of times we assess student understanding, specifically in public school, through multiple choice assessments, where you're choosing the best of four answers. And the thing I love the most about the STEM is that it's the polar opposite of that.

There is no one right answer if you issue a STEM challenge or you have a STEM project where students are coming to solve a problem, while the problem might be the same, if you have five teams, you're going to get five different solutions to that problem. And what I love is that students are able to draw on their own experiences, on their own knowledge base, and give their own spin to their solution to any sort of problem based learning that you incorporate in the classroom. It also takes the students out of that mindset of helplessness into no, we are problem seekers because we are problem solvers. We've identified a problem. What can we do to make it better? Maybe it's changing our attitude. Maybe it's lobbying to our congressmen. Maybe it's talking to a mentor about the problem and seeing what solutions are already out there, and could we implement that in our city? Or maybe it's coming up with something brand new. So the sky is really the limit. And I love seeing my students sort of take ownership of that problem and really feel empowered to change their classroom and their community for good.

[08:25] - Applying STEM For Learning at ALL Grade Levels

  • The applicability of STEM across age groups is discussed, using The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind as an example.

  • Covey shares how she tailors STEM challenges to different age levels and resources available.

Covey: One of my favorite books to use in the classroom is The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. There's a middle school version, but then there's also a picture book version, and it's about this boy who had the problem of not having electricity, not having running water in his village, and he created a windmill using found materials. He went to the dump, and he was able to create a generator that provided power and also pumped water. And I love reading this book with my students because they see it's a child, which they immediately relate to. It's a child who doesn't have money. He's not well off. He doesn't have the latest and greatest gadgets and technology. He's using what he's provided to create this solution. And I feel like my students really can identify with that. And so my youngest students, maybe they need a little bit more scaffolding and help, but they're able to create windmill prototypes. And we can see, okay, which one can make the buzzer buzz the loudest, and we set it in front of a box fan. With my older students, I'm able to make it much more involved. They have to measure the output current. They design their windmill blades with recyclables, and then they move over to the 3D tinker CAD program, design it, and scale it, print their models, have a more finished prototype, and then they're able to test and compare those.

And you can really scale the learning to meet the needs of whatever group of children that you're working with, but it's really accessible to them. It's very fun for them to figure out.

There's lots of different variations that you can do to make it fit what you have in your classroom. So if all you have are chopsticks construction paper and bolts, from those you can make a really fun, engaging lesson that's meaningful to your students. But if you have access to a 3D printer and tinker CAD or motors and generators, you have more resources. Well, maybe you can scale it up and make it something that's even more challenging and engaging for older students. So it's just really fun, and I don't feel like you need to be limited by what you have access to.

[12:13] - Getting Started with STEM and Grant Writing

  • Covey shares her experience of teaching with a limited budget and the importance of wise spending on reusable materials.

  • She advises teachers to seek help from local businesses and explains her approach to requesting assistance.

[17:11] - Grant Writing and Success Stories

  • Covey dives into her journey of grant writing, highlighting a seminar she attended that helped her write her first grants.

  • She explains her initial struggle with grant rejections and how she turned it into a learning opportunity.

  • The impact of successful grant writing on her classroom and students' learning experiences, especially during COVID, is discussed.

Dr. Diane: If there's a teacher who's just starting out, who's interested in incorporating more STEM into their curriculum, into their classroom, where would you point them to begin?

Covey: So when I first began teaching, I had about 380 students, and I had a $300 a year budget. So if you calculate that out, that's less than one dollar per student for the entire year. And so when I did purchase things for my classroom, I was really careful to make sure that I was purchasing things that were not consumable, that I could reuse again and again and again and reuse with groups of students.

If you are on the limited budget, be aware of how and where you spend your money.

I also asked for help because one of my mottos is, what's the worst they can say? They can say no. I can hear no and it doesn't affect me. So I reached out to people in my community. We have some drug manufacturing companies that are near us, we have Firestone Bridgestone, which is near to us, and I just phoned them up. I said, I have this great idea for a project I want to do in my classroom and I need to purchase this kit. I was wondering if you might help my classroom by purchasing this kit for me. And I heard a lot of yeses, because a lot of companies really want to support teachers in their classrooms. And so those were things that I did even before I began writing grants.

About my third year of teaching, I realized that grant writing was something that I really needed to start doing. And so I had the opportunity to attend a weekend seminar that was put on by the North Carolina Science Leadership Association here in my state. And I went that weekend and they held our hands and they walked us through writing our first grant application. And I wrote eleven grants in that one weekend. And I was all excited, I was super excited about all these grants I had written. And then it came time to get the decisions, and I had only won one of the eleven grants, and it was a little disheartening at first because you get all these emails, I'm sorry, and you start to think, well, did I just waste an entire weekend on writing grants? And then I got the one yes. And that one yes was for $3,000. And I said in one weekend I earned ten times my annual budget because I still had a budget of $300.

So then I did something that was even a little bit more humbling. All those no's that I got, I sent a thank you email and asked what could I do better?

And that was a hard email to write because they didn't pick me. What had I done wrong? But I wanted to grow. And I always give feedback to my students because I want them to grow, I want them to do better. And it was hard to sort of humble myself and realize that yours wasn't the best application you need to grow. This is a skill that you are not good at yet. And thankfully, from about four of them, I got feedback. So, the following year, I rewrote my grants with that feedback in mind. And of the 13 grants I think that I applied for, the second year, I got eleven of the 13. huge growing curve.

But I had to humble myself. I had to take that feedback, and I had to give myself permission to fail and to learn from my failures and grow as an educator. But over the past eight years, I've been able to earn over $150,000 for the different classrooms.

During COVID I was able to write a grant where I got take home science kits for all 60 of my students. And they had this huge five gallon zippered bag full of materials that they were able to do alongside of me on Zoom and actively participate in science. And it was really exciting because come EOG (end of grade) testing, they're all about that data, all about the numbers. My students outperformed almost any other students in the entire county as a whole, as a group, because the hands on learning hadn't stopped. They were excited to come to science class. I had cousins and brothers and sisters come join me on Science Zoom, doing all the experiments with me, and it was just so wonderful. And I was able to share those successes with the company that gave me the money. And that company was thrilled that they had had such an impact on my students. It was wonderful.

[19:38] - Building Relationships and Telling Stories

  • Covey emphasizes the importance of storytelling and building relationships in grant writing.

  • She shares strategies such as inviting local media to events and engaging companies in projects funded by their contributions.

Covey: So, I'm in a very small, rural eastern North Carolina town, and I know the school reporter at the local newspaper. I also know some of the reporters at the local news stations. And so if I've received a grant and we've got something super fun planned, like, I received a grant from a company and we had a zombie breakout, as we discovered about tracing things. This was a high school class, and we were learning about how diseases spread. And I didn't want to talk about COVID because we were all COVIDed out. But a zombie outbreak, now, that's pretty fun. And so we had a huge zombie outbreak, and they had to incorporate math skills and all sorts of things. But I had someone who allowed me to purchase what I needed to run this amazing experience. And I invited the newspaper and I invited the news stations and we made front page of the newspaper above the fold. And I was able to mail that along with the thank you note, along with thank you notes handwritten by my students to this company, thanking them for this amazing experience that they had offered my students.

And I've also invited companies to come so we have an outdoor learning space that I was able to secure a grant to help create. And I invited that company to come and see sort of the grand unveiling of this space. And I have a picture of this guy in a fancy suit that probably costs more than my salary. I'm not going to lie sitting in a sandbox digging for shark teeth fossils with the Kindergartner. And I created that moment for that executive. But that moment stuck with him because the very next year he phoned me up because I hadn't submitted another grant to them. And he said, we've got grant money left over. What's your next big idea? We want to fund it. And I was able to get a grant without even applying for the grant because I had formed that relationship, created that memory for them. And they knew that I was a good steward of their funds, that I was going to make students lives amazing with whatever they gifted me. And it was a wonderful relationship that we were able to cultivate.

[24:17] - Practical Grant Writing Tips

  • Covey provides practical advice for teachers interested in grant writing.

  • Key tips include obtaining administrator support, starting with small grants to build confidence, setting aside dedicated time for grant writing, and expressing genuine excitement about the proposed projects in grant applications.

Covey: So, first of all,

You probably already know how to write a grant if you know how to write a lesson plan, because there's a lot in common.

You're going to need to have your resume or your CV. For most grants they require a CV.

But before you get started on your grant writing journey and you're going down your checklist, the very first thing that I want you to do is get approval from your administration.

A lot of school districts have rules about grants and what you can apply for. You need to know what's the policy in your school and also when you have administrator support, that sort of guarantees that if you win funds, those funds are going to be used for what you wrote the grant for, that they're not just going to be given to the school. When you have that relationship with your administrator, and you bring them on board with your plan and you're really excited, and then you invite them into the classroom to show them what they helped happen, that administrator is really going to be on your side for writing grants.

My next one is start small.

There are lots of small grants that are $100 and $200, even $500 that are literally 200 words. That's a paragraph, right? You're going to have a time investment of maybe a planning period to apply for that grant, but you're going to sort of overcome, I don't know. Steve always talks about inertia and how an object at rest likes to stay at rest. An object in motion wants to stay in motion, right? You've got to do something to kind of get yourself in motion along this path, because it's scary. I fear failure. I'm sure a lot of educators do as well, but you just got to do it.

With the small grants, if you don't win them, a lot of times they'll give you feedback on why not, because they're usually run by very small committees, and they'll give you feedback as to why it wasn't approved, so you can improve and hone that skill of grant writing. And then once you have your confidence up, what I do is I have one weekend a year that I write all my grants.

So anytime I find out about a new grant, I just drop the link into that day on my Google Calendar, and when that day comes around, I apply to as many grants as I can. I spend that one weekend writing grants, and then I'm done with it. I only am willing to invest one weekend a year, and then I don't think of it again until the following year. And for me to compartmentalize it that way has been really helpful for my own mental health and for setting work life boundaries. And I look forward to that weekend. I'm like, oh, I bet I can get 13 this year. I'm going to apply for 13 grants. And I set myself a little mini goal, and I apply to all the grants, and then I wait and see what's your yes, what's your no. And some years I get everything I applied for, and other years I get nothing I applied for. So it's really hit or miss sometimes with these grants. But start small. Make sure you have administrator support. A lot of grants, they all require the same thing. You need to know sort of the makeup of your school. A lot of times they want to know sort of the racial breakdown, the income breakdown of the students that you're serving, are you rural? Are you public, are you private? That sort of thing. A lot of those numbers you can get right from your school secretary.

And then what are you excited about? If you have an idea for a project that's going to come through in your writing, if it's something you're really excited about, it's very clear when you write that paragraph, you really shine through it. And the readers of these grants, they can tell, oh, man, this teacher is so excited about doing this in her classroom. I can't wait to help them out.

[25:53] - Challenges and Joys of STEM Education

  • Covey discusses the challenge of storage for ongoing STEM projects and shares her strategy of using non-consumables and recyclables.

  • She highlights the joy of witnessing students who aren't necessarily top academic performers excelling in hands-on problem-solving and showing resilience in the face of failure.

  • Covey emphasizes the value of collaboration and diverse strengths in STEM projects.

Covey: The joys. My best STEM students don't tend to be the straight A students. The straight A students are usually very afraid of failure. And that fear of failure often sometimes keeps them from even getting started because there's not a clear cut right and wrong.

My students who are not A students, who are used to facing challenges day to day in the classroom, they have the ability to just persevere, to plow through, and to deal with that failure. And failures are almost just like water off a duck's back. They're like, okay, that didn't work. Let me try this. And they're able to switch gears, and they're able to say, well, that kind of worked. Let me try this. And they reflect on every failure, and they grow from it. And I love to see them bring that strength to a group, and they're able to say, oh, just calm down. It's okay. It didn't work. Let's just try this. And they diffuse that tension, and you see them really assume that role of leadership, and they start believing in themselves, and they get really excited, like, I'm really good at this.

And I love seeing how all of the different student strengths can combine to make these collaborative groups that are just absolutely amazing. And the things they come up with are things I never would have thought of in a million years. And I love seeing that shine through.

[29:48] - Picture Books for STEM Connections

  • Some of Covey's go-to picks include The Most Magnificent Thing and the Ada Twist, Scientist series, noting their relatability and diversity of characters.

Dr. Diane: You mentioned earlier The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Are there other picture books that are sort of go to for you as you are issuing STEM challenges or as you're building connections in the classroom?

Covey: So, one that I love to read every year is The Most Magnificent Thing, and it's about this girl and her pet pug, and she's trying to create something. And as the reader, we don't know what she's trying to create. We just know that every time she creates a prototype, it's not right. And you see her getting angrier and more frustrated and angrier and more frustrated to the point that she gives up. And she and her dog start walking around the block and every prototype is sort of laid out along the sidewalk. And she walks by and she starts noticing that she likes this about that one, and this one has, oh, I could use something from this one. And she reflects upon every prototype that she's built. She comes back, she's in a different mindset. She gets to work. She's taking all of these things that she's learned from these failures, and she creates a working prototype. And we see it's this little doggy cart that hooks to the bike and the dog gets to go for a bike ride. And she's excited. And I love it because the kids can really relate to how it feels to be this little girl. She's frustrated, she's ready to quit. But when she calms herself down and she reflects upon all of the hard work that she's already put in, she sees value in every single failure along the way. And those failures are what lead her to the ultimate success. And so I love the message that that book brings to my students.

Dr. Diane: Have you seen the sequel? The Most Magnificent Idea. In that one, she's fresh off of her really good idea and she's waiting for the next idea to come and she can't find inspiration, and she gets frustrated with the fact that it's not coming to her easily. And so it sort of is about taking that step back, about where do you find inspiration and about allowing things to happen organically. What do you do in the meantime while you're waiting for inspiration to strike? Where do you go and look? And it's a nice companion piece.

Covey: There's a series of books that they all have different little rhyming names and Ada Twist Scientist is one of them. And I love those because every child pictured in those books seems to look a unique way. So they have different color skin, different type of hairstyles. They're very relatable. Because I have very diverse classrooms, I love having those, even just on the bookshelf for kids to flip through during spare time because I really feel like it's important for kids to see themselves in STEM. And so I'm really cautious when I'm putting up bulletin boards or signs or even showing videos that I'm not showing the same person again and again and again.

A lot of times when kids think of scientists, they think of Bill Nye, the Science Guy or Steve Spangler. And they're wonderful. They're engaging. I love the polish that their programs offer. But there's a lot of other great real life examples of scientists that I can put up as posters on the wall that incorporate diversity into my classroom. And so that's what I really try and make a conscious effort to do, is make sure that every single one of my students can look to the wall and find somebody there that they have something in common with. So I like to try and really be careful about what I post in my classroom so that it is inclusive, because I want to make sure that all of my students have someone that they can relate to, that they can look up to, that they can admire.

Dr. Diane: I think that's so hugely important. As I'm traveling the country working with teachers, that's one of the things that I'm really emphasizing as I'm connecting picture books and STEM is this whole notion of windows and mirrors that Dr. Sims Bishop talked about. You need to be able to see yourself reflected, but you also need to be able to have a window into other people's experiences. And so I love the fact that you're very carefully curating that experience for your students.

[34:25] - Opportunities and Challenges for the Upcoming School Year

  • Covey shares the opportunities she sees in STEM education, particularly through invention and STEM competitions like ExploraVision.

  • She mentions the impact of recognition on students' confidence and belief in their ability to make a difference.

  • Covey discusses challenges faced by students and educators alike and shares her excitement for her involvement in interactive STEM exhibits at a local science museum.

Covey: There are so many opportunities for students in STEM. I think one of the ways that I really encourage my students is through different invention competitions and different STEM competitions. One of my favorites is through NSTA. It's called ExploraVision. And students create, depending on the age group, a storyboard, or they have the opportunity to explore writing a scientific paper, including the abstract and the work cited, and it gives them the opportunity to share their ideas to a larger audience. I'm in a very small, rural, eastern North Carolina town, and a lot of my students really believe that nothing they think, say, or do matters outside the walls of my classroom. Like, nobody cares about their ideas. Nobody cares about the things that they invent or the things that they think of. And I tell them I care. I care so much that I am telling it to a nationwide panel of scientists, and you are going to get to share your idea on this stage. And the students just look at me, they're like, Wait, are you serious? And I've had know make it very far in these competitions, know CEOs from Samsung and Toshiba have flown to our school and had assemblies in the unairconditioned gym because we don't have an auditorium, and recognize these students. They’ve gotten to be on television, they've gotten to be in the newspaper.

And I think when students see their classmates or see an older student get recognized like that in a public way, they're like, oh my gosh, you mean my ideas could matter, I could change the world. And they really sort of internalize that feeling that the things that you think up, the things that you create, they could change the world. Like you are a problem seeker, you're a problem solver, and the solutions you come up with matter. And I love instilling that into my students. It's really exciting to see them gain that confidence.

[36:49] - What Brings Joy

  • Covey talks about her upcoming consultancy work on STEM exhibits, her pursuit of the certification, and her continuous commitment to being a better STEM educator.

*Note: Timestamps are approximate and may vary slightly based on the actual podcast recording.*

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