College of Education
Education graduate helps take STEM schoolwide
Courtney Sheriff’s student-focused and creative approach to teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) led her into a leadership role in STEM education for her entire school. Looking back on her college life, she has no regrets about passing up a full ride to another institution and feels blessed that God instead opened doors for her to come to Anderson, where she earned both a baccalaureate and graduate degree.
Courtney Dickerson Sheriff
Courtney, this past year has been a busy one for you. Give us an update on how things are going.
We’ve grown our STEM program a lot. I’ve gotten married, finished my master’s, started my doctorate and grew our STEM program. My motto has become “Make It Happen,” not giving excuses, but to just problem solve through whatever situation may come, and just to know we will accomplish it. It might not be what we initially thought, but it can still be done even with COVID and inflation and all of the changes that’s happening.
Tell me about how the STEM program has grown at James M. Brown Elementary School.
(The year) 2021 was our first year of STEM. We are entering into year three of our STEM program and during that time I’ve raised about $20,000 worth of supplies and support from the community, from different grants that I’ve written and really just working. That first year I really had to rely on the community to help build us up—places like Roper Mountain Science Center, and then businesses like Lowe’s, Home Depot, Zone 7 Nursery, Head-Lee Nursery… They showed up and they helped our programs tremendously from plants to tools to raised garden beds. It was a very long list of supplies that they were willing to help us with. We have gotten pretty much everything we need for the STEM program.
I teach over 600 students, so having enough supplies for 600 students is a lot. I quickly realized that I needed the community to help because I couldn’t do this myself. Our community is very supportive of our STEM program—they love it and the parents love it.
This past spring we started selling our JMB honey from our honeybees and we’re going to sell that again this coming fall. We do beekeeping. We have five beehives right now and we’re hoping to add some more. The goal with that is to help other schools so that every school in Oconee County has honeybees. My goal is that if a school wants more honeybees, to be able to extract honey, then we can be that source for them. I’ve made up a honeybee team from some of the teachers here that want to be involved. We harvested seven five-gallon buckets of honey this past summer, which is amazing. So I’m super excited about getting to give that back to our community and all of the proceeds from that go back into the STEM program and to get us more supplies for whatever it is that we might need.
I’m Title 1. Because my job is paid through Title 1, I’m not allowed to have a budget, so I literally have to rely on the community to fund us. That is a very conscious decision that you have to make, an intentional one.
We have a school garden. We have 15 raised beds now and we also have a hydroponic garden tower where we sell the fruits and vegetables to our faculty and staff. The kids get to eat them and they love it. They call it a lettuce tree. Out of this tower alone I can harvest five gallons of lettuce per week. We’re able to quickly sell that. We have about 100 faculty and staff here, so it’s so easy to just turn and sell it. All of that money goes back to our STEM program budget. Now we’re able to buy the things that we need even if we don’t have a provided budget for us, I’ve still been able to gain enough support and build up the STEM program. I’m at the point now where my philosophy is: it's fine if you want to provide me with one but I’ve made one. We’re still going to make this work.
Without our community and the teacher support and student support, our STEM program wouldn’t be what it is.
What’s your general approach to learning?
I really believe in hands-on learning. That’s how I learn best and I know that with COVID that became very difficult for our students to learn by hand because of protocols of having to wipe things down and stuff like that. We still made it happen. They have built parade floats for students to take home out of cardboard. I really love getting the kids and just teaching them life skills throughout the year. Our school uses hot glue guns and canary knives, which are cardboard cutting knives. We use hammers and screwdrivers. Those are life skills—You need to know how to use those things, how to problem solve and think through “How does that go together? How do you make a parade float roll and not be bumpy all the time?”
One project that I really loved was our students getting to build our school garden. We got grants from (another university) and Whole Foods Corporation. They provided raised beds along with Lowe’s and Home Depot. I let our students build them. For some of them, it was one of the first times they had ever physically put something together. Getting them to see “you have all these materials, it looks like nothing” and then putting it together to make essentially a giant rectangle—they loved it. I tell my own teachers, “I encourage teachers to utilize hands-on learning as it provides an opportunity for the student to be fully engaged in a lesson. Being able to intertwine those life lessons into any kind of project that we’re doing and relating it to a career field too is really important for me because I remember at Anderson whenever I was there, STEM was kind of new to the state. It’s still kind of new to our district.
Did part of your inspiration for STEM come from Anderson University?
Dr. Meg Walworth (AU professor) recognized that my passion was science and engineering, so she talked to me… “One day you can be a STEM teacher, you don’t just have to teach science, if this is something you want to pursue.” So I’m really grateful for her, because I am a STEM teacher and I love getting to do this every day.
Tell me about times when you see a student just light up when you’re teaching them a concept.
Every year that I teach on the solar system, we’ve been blessed with telescopes from Roper Mountain Science Center and there is a website called Storytime from Space. It’s a free website and it’s astronauts reading story books from the International Space Station. I try to incorporate literacy as much as possible with our kids along with everything else I’m doing.
I’ll never forget one girl. She saw that it was a female astronaut reading the book, and after we had finished reading the book we were talking about it. She said, “that’s a girl astronaut!” I said “yeah, there are plenty of women astronauts and scientists that work for NASA and do all of these different things that make that possible.” And you just saw this look of “Gosh! I can do that!” And I showed her NASA’s website. I just pulled up women who work there. There were all types of scientists. With that specific girl, seeing her realize “I can be an astronaut” or “I can be a scientist for NASA one day.” That completely motivated her to work harder in STEM. She really loves to code with our robots and so she’s decided that she wants to be a coder for NASA and she’s going into the third grade. That’s an amazing thing to already have in your brain in third grade.
What are some other STEM activities you do with your students?
We have Dash robots and Ozobots and coding is one of the first things I do with our students. I use it as a way to incorporate following directions in the lab. Because of coding, one wrong turn and it’s not going to end up the right way. With coding you have to be precise and you have to listen, otherwise that robot’s not going to work. We have different robots for different ability levels. Our students really enjoy that; that helps with problem solving. During that first two weeks, my room has fold out tables. The first week of school, I will fold up those tables and I have the entire floorspace of my class. And I make the entire room into a giant robot arena, and that way the kids can’t get in the arena, so you have to problem solve on the sideline of how to get through this obstacle course that I’ve made. It’s a lot of fun.
When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?
I knew in my heart I was supposed to be a teacher but I just wasn’t wanting to give into that just yet. I was at a NewSpring (Church) Fuse service. They were talking about giving your future to God and what that means and what it looks like.
I’ve always been really good with kids, just understanding them. I’m a kid at heart myself too, but for a long time I really fought that, of not wanting to go into teaching. I was a typical teenager, not wanting to listen to what my God given gifts were. I just remember that one of the teachers that I was with in my teacher cadet class looked at me one day and said, “If God’s telling you to do something, you should do it.” I knew right then she was speaking right to my heart and I knew from then on “okay, I’m going to go and be a teacher.”
How did you get to Anderson?
I was a teenager shrugging it off. Honestly, one day I was just thinking about where I’m going to go to school and what am I going to do. I finally broke down and said, “All right, God. If you want me to go somewhere specific, show me where to go. That day I got two phone calls from different people at Anderson and I was like “okay I think maybe he’s leading me to Anderson.” You start to doubt. I’d say “I want to be sure if you’re telling me you want to go to Anderson.”
For the next few weeks we were bombarded at our house with Anderson mail. I don’t know if they meant to do that. I’m glad they did. At the time I had a full ride at (another university) and I felt like God was calling me to Anderson. I really don’t know why, and I remember going with my mom and my grandmother to Anderson and getting back in the car and thinking “I’m going to school here,” because I just felt so much peace about it. I wasn’t worried about the future. Everyone at Anderson made me feel extremely welcomed and loved.
How has Anderson University helped you as an educator?
As soon as I stepped on the campus I just felt that God said “Welcome home.” That’s how I felt the entire time I was there, even in my master’s class. The professors really pour into you and genuinely care. I still have professors that keep up with me and I keep up with them because I care about them too. That’s something that I still love about Anderson and I’d recommend it to anybody.
The professors would pray with me about where I was supposed to go. Since then I have learned a lot more that as soon as He tells you to do something, you need to do it and just trust Him. He’s a much better planner than what we are.
You did some interesting things to keep your students engaged during the COVID shutdown. Please describe that for us.
In March (2020) whenever we closed down, I was still teaching science and social studies. I wasn’t a STEM teacher just yet, but my principal at the time recognized how much I loved teaching science. During that summer when I had started making the science videos, the purpose in me doing that was because we could not get our students to engage with us online. We had our own paperwork that we had to submit to the district office and our hands were pretty tied as far as what we could really do versus what we cannot do, so I started making these short videos with things that they probably had at home—things like dish soap, milk, water, vinegar—just basic supplies. I don’t think I used anything where they would need to buy it. I was just trying to keep it as simple as possible, but giving them something fun they can do.
Then I started making (the videos) and then we submitted it to our Google classroom and we asked our students to record themselves doing the experiment themselves with a family member and then send it to us. Whenever they started doing it, then they started doing their classwork that they were supposed to be doing, because we were counting this as a science grade. You’re just replicating a simple experiment from what we’re doing. So we’re just doing soap, food coloring and milk and seeing what happens and we’ll have a small writing piece about it… Word started getting around that Mrs. Dickerson has a YouTube channel and she’s blowing stuff up with Mentos and Coke out in her yard and all this stuff.
Then our team came up with this idea of having a virtual lunch. We started doing that and that was just the time for us to hang out with our kids virtually for about 30 minutes. Once we started doing that, more of our kids started doing the work. I wasn’t doing anything elaborate. These were simple, super easy experiments, but giving them something a little bit different to do along with letting them see you.
What was your favorite experiment video?
I have a lot of favorite experiments, but one I loved to do was where you can take salt and glue and you can write a secret message in salt. If you take watercolors and gently dab them, they will spread out, almost like tie dye happening in front of you. I did that announcing that I was the STEM teacher and I spelled out “STEM” and some of the parents recorded their kids’ reactions. That was really cool to see, because it was some of the kids I had, and then hearing them say “we’re going to have a STEM teacher and it’s going to be her.” It all fell into place and they loved it. Then making an egg get sucked into a bottle was probably one of my favorites. I was not expecting the noise to be so loud. The research I had done said nothing about the noise it would make, and in the video, you’ve got my full surprise effect.
So, I understand this activity led you to the work you’re doing now. Tell us about that.
That summer, Mrs. Robertson offered me the STEM position and she told me that STEM was my “oyster” and to make it into what I felt it should be. Then our kids came back, and I announced in one of our experiment videos that we were going to have a STEM room and I was going to be the teacher. Word got around about that and then the kids came back in the fall excited for STEM. It was kind of an epic walkup to bat. It all fell into place and we’ve been very blessed—our STEM program has. We’re looking forward to growing even more this year.
What do you see in your future?
I would love to help train teachers. I had excellent professors at Anderson who just poured into me. They taught me a lot, but I know there are some things you just have to experience for yourself, and I would really love to help be a part of training teachers as well as being a part of something to retain teachers as well, because we are in a teacher shortage. I would love to be like a math and science instructional specialist or something like that, because those are my passions. That’s up to God.
What advice would you give to somebody considering a career in education?
Just from my own experience, if you feel like God is pulling you in a specific direction, trust whatever He is telling you, because He will provide along the entire way. That’s something I’ve seen time and time again in not just building a STEM program from nothing, but just in my personal life as well. I was self-taught in STEM and I don’t have a degree in STEM or anything.
I think too, if you’re going into education, that is a heavy burden. Know that it’s not going to be easy and you’re going to need a great support system, and so whenever you’re interviewing at these schools make sure that it’s with people that you know will be there for you. I know where I’m at right now… I know that these people have my back and if I need something they are there.
I didn’t have a great experience my first year of teaching, but it taught me a lot of what a school should not be, and then I came to a school where I was like “this is everything a school should be,” and so I was able to see both sides of the coin on that. Trust what God is telling you, even if it’s something crazy like building a STEM program from nothing with no money. He’ll make it happen and you will know if it’s your God-given talent or not. It’s important to know that even when times get hard, God is still by your side, even on those tough days of teaching, which we all have. Even after five years, I know I’m going to have tough days, and that’s okay. Listen to God. Don’t put him off.