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    Perspective: Smithsonian brings power of science to NC schools

Perspective: Smithsonian brings power of science to NC schools

October 6th, 2021

Prepping Smithsonian Science Education Center materials for delivery to teachers in Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, and Polk school districts.

An exciting force is sweeping across Western North Carolina schools and it’s transforming all teachers into science teachers and students who never embraced STEM subject matter before into investigators, explorers, and scientists who love getting their hands dirty!

The Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) and the NC SMT Center are partners with Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, and Polk school districts in North Carolina, elevating science and inquiry instruction. Now in its third year of a five-year grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the partnership provides not only hands-on curriculum materials for 3rd through 5th grade students to explore but professional development and support to teachers.

Among the most full-throated supporters of the SSEC curriculum are Dr. Sam Houston, President and CEO of the NC Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center, and Mr. Aaron Greene, former teacher and current Superintendent of Polk County Schools (one of the school districts participating in the study).

“Engaged learners are easier to work with,” notes Dr. Houston, and these kits developed by SSEC ensure that the days of rote learning are over, replaced with hands-on activities that pull students in, encourage inquiry, and make school fun. With a research-based curriculum as the foundation, teachers are supported through professional development to stop just answering questions, but rather to drive students to craft a better question, develop hypotheses, and test their theories and uncover answers on their own. As Dr. Houston often says, “The goal is to teach students what to do when they don’t know what to do” — not just hand over the answer without a fight!

Students Shine

So, how are students performing? While formal testing has been challenged by COVID and the virtual learning that followed, Greene notes that science scores have remained steady, and, more importantly, students and teachers are more engaged than ever. In fact, students who had never shown an aptitude or enthusiasm for science before are shining now.

“These exceptionally well-researched and supported materials give teachers a better opportunity to highlight the skills and abilities that some kids have that may not translate to a paper and pencil test,” says Greene. “I have lots of kids who don’t do well on standardized tests who really excel in hands-on activities. THIS gives those kids a place to stand and the confidence they need to springboard into something they’re interested in.”

Dr. Houston echoes this sentiment, pointing to kids who don’t see themselves as “STEM kids” who suddenly find something special and engaging in the sleeves-rolled-up science investigations. Suddenly, these students are indistinguishable from the “high flyers” as Houston says the curriculum serves as a “leveling of the playing field where we learn all sorts of things observing their work that we wouldn’t learn using traditional materials.”

And students learn things about themselves they might not learn with a standard curriculum. This course opens up a whole new world, shining a light on careers and fields many elementary school students have never heard of. As Greene says, we’re so concerned with making sure kids are proficient in reading and math, “We fail to focus on the HOPE aspect. Now we see kids asking ‘Can I see myself doing this for a living? What do I need to learn to get there?’” The program actually drives kids to think about what they want to do with their lives and challenges them to do it.

Parents and Teachers Embrace the Program

Often, when a major shake-up in teaching methodology or expectations is implemented, there can be substantial push-back from both teachers and parents. Both Houston and Greene agree that the opposite has happened in the schools using the SCC materials.

“We’re changing the way teachers think about what they do every day and hopefully in a positive, comfortable way,” says Houston. “They are being supported through materials and professional development to focus on science, but also to use scientific principles to encourage students to ask great questions, dig deep, get dirty, and challenge themselves—in language and math as well as science.” Teachers are actually using science as a tool to teach math, language, and even the arts.

“Teachers don’t feel like they’re wasting their time on fluff,” adds Greene. “You get that happy marriage of sharing the content and skills with the kids in a way that’s fun, that teaches them critical thinking skills, and helps them attack problems using the scientific method. It pays huge dividends and kids are more receptive to future studies. That engagement makes for happy teachers.”

According to Greene, parents are thrilled with the new teaching style as well. Kids are coming home with hands-on homework they can’t wait to get started on. Diagrams and memorization are replaced with engaging investigations, puzzles, and projects that challenge kids to ask good questions, investigate on their own, and think critically. All skills they can apply to every subject on their schedule, not to mention their daily lives outside of school.

Charting a New Path

Within the year, the data collection portion of the SSEC grant will conclude, and the Center for Research and Education Policy at the University of Memphis will begin analyzing the data. Teachers in the four participating counties will continue to use the curriculum, and others may take it up too. Dr. Houston and Superintendent Greene have both expressed their hopes for the continued use of the program in North Carolina.

“I hope this process leads to a shift in our way of thinking about STEM and science instruction in general. I’d love to see that shift to our whole educational model to more of a problem-based application based, hands on environment,” says Greene. Pointing to the current practice of testing, testing, testing, he says, “I hope we figure out that this ‘drill and kill’ method is necessary to some degree but at the end of the day, what inspires kids and gets them to make connections in their brain is to have to extend, to be hands-on, to talk about things without clear-cut answers.”

Dr. Houston’s hopes reach further into the future, anticipating how graduates of this program will thrive in the workplace of the coming decades. He notes that we don’t even know what the workplace of the future will look like, but that it’s going to change very rapidly. “But, what is clear,” continues Houston, “is we need to give kids flexible skills they can use to adapt to the unknowns they will be confronted with; to give them the ability to take what they know (skills, experience, and information) and adapt it to an ever-changing environment.”

The Smithsonian Science Center has created something very special in its science-based curriculum, but Dr. Houston emphasizes that this program isn’t simply designed to just teach STEM. “Our big hope,” he concludes, “is that schools will be transformed through this program to focus on research, on inquiry. To adapt to the changing needs of the learner and to provide them with the tools and the inquisitive spirit to excel in whatever subjects and careers their future holds.”

Dr. Sam Houston is the President and CEO of the NC Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center. He has served as superintendent of schools (including for ten years over the Mooresville Graded School District when it opened the state’s first year-round school) and is the namesake of the Leadership Award for the NC School Superintendent’s Association yearly honor.

Superintendent Aaron Greene begins his 27th year in education this school year, six as superintendent. He obtained his Teaching degree and Masters degree from North Carolina universities and has dedicated his career to serving in both educational and administrative roles in Polk County schools.

For additional information about the Smithsonian Science Education Center and this unique curriculum, click here.

Perspective: Mapping Eastern NC’s Blue Economy Corridor

September 1st, 2021

We all have special places in our lives. Lake houses we returned to summer after summer. Mountaintops with views that take your breath away. For Dr. Emily Yeager, that place is the Pamlico River Basin. She spent her childhood swimming in the Tar River and playing along its shores, and she reconnected with it as a student at East Carolina University (ECU). Today, her love of this unique waterway and passion for sharing its beauty and wonder have inspired a project like no other.

A native of Epsom, N.C., Dr. Yeager has returned to Greenville after a stint in Georgia to serve as an assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Performance at ECU with an ambitious goal of bringing together the communities in this region in a way that connects people using both technology and nature.

“I just started visiting the towns and communities I loved as a kid,” she says. “And I noticed that each community along the Pamlico was revitalizing their waterfront properties and facilities. Downtowns and waterways were undergoing amazing economic development.”

But, while each community has the resources to draw in visitors on its own, Dr. Yeager saw the value of branding this entire region in a way that would create a strong network these towns could leverage to support their own individual goals and realize the vision they had for their communities.

In January 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a study called the Blue Economy Strategic Plan, which laid out a map to advance the country’s blue economy, or how coastal economies can flourish when they balance conservation, water usage, and coastal activities. With this study in mind, Dr. Yeager has dubbed this Eastern Tar- Pamlico River Basin the Blue Corridor, and her goal is to map this region to showcase historical and ecological sites, promote education and conservation efforts, and drive local commerce in an integrated way – all while encouraging residents and visitors to participate in the creation of this evolving map.

“Asset mapping is an incredible tool,” explains Yeager. “As we think about unifying these three types of assets – socio-cultural, environmental, and hospitality – through one Corridor, this digital interactive map allows us to see what all of these assets are and how they are connected by this one waterway.” She goes on to say that this map creates a sense of place that both supports regional economic growth and empowers residents and visitors. Since the map will be accessible online, users will be encouraged to “drop a pin,” upload photos of their favorite kayaking spot, or recommend a great restaurant close to the bustling waterfront.

Eventually, this map will allow users to zoom in on specific sites, but also (and critically) see the entire region and how each community connects to others. For example, a visitor may want to explore an African American historical site and have their heart set on Freedom Hill in Princeville. But if they pull up the asset map, they’ll see that just 25 minutes away is the Claussen Bakery (home to some of the first civil rights strikes in 1967) as well as the birthplace of renowned blues musician Josh White and Bosco’s Baby’s, offering some of the best soul food in Greenville. A single stop can be transformed into a themed experience, that allows visitors a more colorful picture of the place their visiting, and residents the chance to showcase the home they love.

“We aren’t building this map alone,” adds Yeager, noting that bringing stakeholders into the effort early will harness the power of maps to tell stories that inspire.

According to Yeager, she has partnered with the NC Folk Life Institute because they are the curators of all socio-cultural heritage resources in the state. And, Sound Rivers – a conservation and ecotourism non-profit – that is a local guide to the waterways because they paddle the river every day and help inspire the project to explore opportunities for environmental education, interpretation, and literacy. Someday, Yeager hopes, with the input from these stakeholders and the enthusiasm of STEM educators across the state, this map will serve as the guide for “citizen scientists,” who can use it to study marine life, report littering in real-time, and teach students (young and old) about the treasures of the waterway.

The next step for this tool’s development is a survey to be delivered to about 8,000 residents who live near the river basin. Yeager and her team are hopeful that residents will see this as an opportunity to not just enhance their community’s economic development but also to shine a light on the places and experiences they are most proud of, most connected to. Data collection and analysis and stakeholder input will be reviewed over the next year and, with luck, the asset map will go live in Fall 2022. From there, the map will continue to evolve as more assets are added, more people visit, and more residents weigh-in.

“In this day and age where everyone is connected through digital devices,” Yeager concludes, “it’s very easy to lose your sense of place. We think people will be excited to reestablish a connection to their place – where they live or where they visit. People are starving for that, the connection to a larger landscape, the creation of a sense of place, and the empowerment of those who live there.”

It’s clear that Dr. Yeager’s passion for the Tar River and the Pamlico River Basin runs deep. Now, she’s hopeful that this project will serve as a template for other regions in North Carolina, as eager as she is to share what they love most using the magic of maps.

(Editor’s Note: The ArcGIS Story Map is constantly evolving and will be updated as new assets are added; to see how the ArcGIS Story Map works, including excellent photos and stories, please visit this website.)

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    Perspective | Shaping the values of next-gen superintendents

Perspective | Shaping the values of next-gen superintendents

July 20th, 2021

As we enjoy summer and start to prepare for the upcoming school year, we take a moment to reflect on the previous educational year and meet one last time with three exceptional representatives from the North Carolina School Superintendent Association (NCSSA).

In previous interviews, we learned about the foundations of the program from Executive Director, Jack Hoke, as well as exploring the features and benefits of the Aspiring Superintendent Program with graduate, Dr. Eisa Cox.

In this installment, we focus on Dr. Rob Jackson, who serves as a mentor for aspiring superintendents but who shares his experiences with the Next Generation Superintendent Development Program.

Since COVID and its necessary protocols were on everyone’s mind even as mask mandates fell and vaccinations increased, Dr. Jackson says that of course the pandemic introduced its own pitfalls and workarounds. But, he notes, “every year there’s a new challenge.” One of the critical values of the Next Generation Superintendent program is that it provides future leaders with the tools, experience, and contacts to tackle any new hurdles that present themselves.

The program ensures that highly-effective superintendents are skilled in the following:

  • Superintendent /School Board Relations. The superintendent must establish a cooperative, productive relationship with the Board. The primary job of the Board is to develop policy, and the primary job of the superintendent is to administer an educational program.
  • Visioning and Goal Setting. With involvement of a representative group of education stakeholders, the superintendent and the staff must facilitate the development of a vision reflecting the preparation of students for their lives after they complete their secondary education. To the extent possible, this vision should describe an “ideal” future considering changes in science, technology, the environment, and the uniqueness of each community served by the school district.
  • Leading for Improved Teaching and Learning. One of the best ways for a school superintendent to fulfill the responsibility for leading for improved teaching and learning is to delegate and empower principals, curricular and instructional specialists, and teachers to share the role of instructional leader.
  • Human Resource Leadership. An absolutely critical attribute that determines the success of a school superintendent is solid HR leadership, specifically identification, recruitment and employment of outstanding, conscientious employees. Empowering these quality individuals not only improves the performance of the district, it goes a long way in reducing the superintendent’s management problems so that time and energy can be devoted to leadership activities.
  • Systems Leadership. As the leader of a school district, the school superintendent must assign top priority to establishing a school culture that is student-centered, operate and make decisions based on the highest principles, values and beliefs, and be caring and understanding in dealing with employees. The superintendent must believe, and demonstrate with action, that the ultimate measure of one’s leadership ability is to share or transfer power to responsible subordinates. The superintendent, especially, needs to empower the leadership team, including principals and central office staff, to carry out their functions in an independent and responsible manner consistent with the district’s goals.

Dr. Jackson goes on to say that program participants have the opportunity to hear from fellow superintendents and get their insights and practical ideals around these five “Essential Leadership Competencies of School Superintendent.” He continues, “It is powerful to hear from NC Superintendents and the opportunity to have in depth discussion around these leadership competencies.”

He points to the networking opportunities as a prime benefit of this program. Participants have access to great minds and mentors with a variety of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives. Because the program lends itself to both large group presentations as well as more intimate workshops and conversations, participants have ample opportunities to learn from others’ experiences, ask pointed questions, and build relationships that will outlast their sessions. Those who work hard to sustain these networks, says Jackson, tend to be better prepared, more connected, and better armed with tools to survive new challenges.

And what is most rewarding thing about seeing the development of these future leaders? Says Jackson, “To see graduates of the program (like Dr. Cox) not only become superintendents but to sustain their involvement in leadership is truly a blessing. There’s great pride in our graduates because they do continue to serve—and they serve so successfully.”

A Day of Next Generation Development …

“Even the seating at these events is purposeful. Sometimes we’re seated with districts of like size, sometimes by region, or sometimes Jack [Hoke] seats us specifically with someone who needs mentorship,” says Dr. Jackson. He says that even though each day holds a well thought out and packed agenda, the format is flexible enough (and leaders nimble enough) to adjust on the fly to address unique circumstances or questions as they arise. “During the program,” continues Jackson, “The speakers pause and give us the opportunity to process, digest, and talk over these issues with our peers and colleagues.”


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    Perspective | Exploring North Carolina’s Aspiring Superintendent Program

Perspective | Exploring North Carolina’s Aspiring Superintendent Program

May 19th, 2021

In our last installment, we met three representatives from the North Carolina School Superintendent Association (NCSSA). Jack Hoke is the Executive Director who drives the mission to support the state’s educational leaders through professional development, legislative advocacy, legal consulting, and a wealth of networking opportunities. Dr. Rob Jackson has seven years of experience as a superintendent and serves as a mentor in the NCSSA Aspiring Superintendents Program. Dr. Eisa Cox is a new superintendent and a recent graduate of the program.

As our conversation continues, we discuss the features and the benefits of the Aspiring Superintendent Program as well as what participants are learning and bringing back to their districts. This unique program is a partnership between the NC SMT Center and the NC Alliance for School Leadership Development and annually provides 30 central office staff members the chance to learn the skills to become a superintendent. Though some of the mechanics of the program have been updated or augmented to manage the challenges of COVID, training typically includes 12 hours of leadership development, 12 hours of technical skills, and 6 hours with a Thought Partner (a sitting superintendent) over 6 full days.

According to Dr. Cox, “you can easily get caught up in the day-to-day, but these Leadership sessions bring you back to the real priorities of the role: creating a vision for your district, talking through best practices, managing board/superintendent relationships, creatively using all of our human resources in the right way, and of course critical teaching and learning.”

The program has several driving features:

Focus on best practices: These sessions always include speakers not only from North Carolina (who can speak to local legislation or nuances specific to the region) but professionals from across the country who can share a totally different perspective. These forums are interactive, engaging, and critical to uncovering and embracing the very best practices from the most innovative and experienced leaders.

Develop sought after skills that apply to all fields: While this program is crafted to support aspiring superintendents, the lessons learned will drive success in any discipline. Attendees are prepared to be better leaders, which can mean “being a superintendent,” but also someone who could support a superintendent or simply be a better employee, spouse, parent, or person. 360 feedback and instruments help participants pinpoint their leadership styles, strengths, and areas for growth; that feedback is invaluable to participants, whether they move forward as a superintendent or not.

Ongoing mentorship: While the six-day program is intensive and groundbreaking, the growth and development doesn’t stop on the final day. Rather, each attendee receives weekly check-ins with a Thought Partner (a current superintendent), bi-weekly meetings with their Executive Coach (a retired superintendent), an invitation to continuing leadership conferences twice yearly, as well as the ability to call or text one of these mentors when a challenge arises. “Having both a thought partner and an executive coach who have lived the position and can provide an unbiased opinion isn’t something that’s always available—and it’s absolutely critical,” says Dr. Cox. And a final bonus: Mr. Hoke makes clear to all aspiring superintendents that he is available to support them 24×7.

Thoughtful relationship-building: One drumbeat that persisted throughout this interview, was that relationships matter and that often, even the best mentor may not provide the best possible guidance if there is no rapport or common ground from which to build. For this reason, while Mr. Hoke seeks to provide a “bigger world” and new experiences to participants, he also excels (according to his graduates!) at making perfect matches between participant and mentor. He intentionally matches a minority leader with a minority participant, or a rural participant with a thought leader from a similar region. He notes that it’s easier for mentors to empathize with those they are guiding if they come from similar experiences. They can offer lessons and direction based on shared values and experiences, and that provides a lifeline that can’t be replicated without such thoughtful pairing.

Unparalleled networking: One strategy highlighted by all three is taking full advantage of networking opportunities. “During COVID, Jack pivoted to a digital platform, allowing the group to stay connected. Those connections have allowed me as a novice superintendent to reach out to others across the state who may have the same challenges as I have,” says Dr. Cox, “I might never have known them without the bridge Jack created. I may think my challenge is unique, but, doubtless, someone has experienced it before and can offer guidance.”

Both Dr. Cox and Dr. Jackson say that through all of this hard work, the one critical truth that drives them is that, as the instructional leader of their district, they must keep their focus on instruction. Their goal is to be the leader who can find those resources, expand their toolkit, and share what they learn so that teachers can focus on teaching.

So, what does a teaching moment at the Aspiring Superintendent week actually look like? “I have gotten my hands dirty—literally—in my Association training,” says Dr. Cox. She describes how Dr. Sam Houston and the NC STEM Center help ensure that STEM Education is front and center in every program. “What I most appreciate is that they always put us into the role of student and we actually do a STEM lesson, taught to small groups by a current teacher. When we regrouped to discuss, we learned we were responding to questions asked through a different lens: some through the lens of language arts, others through the lens of math, others through science and so on. The powerful ‘aha!’ moment was that STEM activities aren’t just about science. They truly are what Sam Houston preaches as ‘strategies that engage minds.’”

As we edge toward the end of another school year, a year in which every school and student had to adapt to the restrictions of COVID, everyone agreed that challenges abound. However, the pandemic forced leaders to be agile and creative problem solvers, and many of their innovations will persist, long after COVID clears.

Dr. Cox described this past year as learning to teach “different and together” and notes a few of the COVID-inspired approaches she brought back to her district:

A focus on continuing education. Professional development actually experienced an uptick during the pandemic because teachers didn’t have to travel to learn. And, coursework became more customized giving teachers everything they needed, custom cut for their specific challenges and circumstances.

Zooming to bring teachers together. Zoom meetings may have their pitfalls, but they can bring large groups from across the state together to plan, learn, and share best practices in ways that a teachers’ lounge can’t.

Re-engaging students. Hybrid learning—where a student can just hide behind her camera—presents lots of challenges but it also provided teachers ways to engage students. Sending home hands-on activities to be done with parents so “learning can take place wherever students are,” spinning off into small discussion groups, all non-traditional ways we survived hybrid learning can be applied and honed when kids are back in the classroom.

The message from recent graduates of the Aspiring Superintendent Program as well as seasoned veterans now serving as mentors is clear: Whether or not you become a superintendent, this program provides both the technical skills sessions and shared space for peers and mentors to help you get to know your own leadership style and grow as a leader. Says Dr. Cox, “This is the best learning and professional development any district leaders can participate in. The supports are unique, the networking is continuous, and Jack has a way of keeping us engaged and thinking together—even when we aren’t in the same physical space.

In our final installment, we will speak more with Dr. Jackson about his experiences with the Next Generation Superintendent Development program.

Overheard …

“Dr. Cox is a shining example of one of the best superintendents in the state, and what we’re trying to do with the Aspiring Superintendent Program.” – Jack Hoke, Executive Director of NCSSA

“To see graduates of the program not only become superintendents but to sustain their involvement in leadership is truly a blessing.” – Jack Hoke

“Those superintendents who take good advantage of the Association’s programs, networking, and coaching have persisted in leadership. They truly defy national statistics!” – Dr. Rob Jackson

Did you know?

42% of people who complete this program are promoted.

23 new superintendents have emerged from this program.

Perspective | The Shining Stars of Superintendency

May 3rd, 2021

The school superintendency is one of the most challenging, but also can be one of the most rewarding position in education. This school year, nearly a quarter of all North Carolina school districts will be led by a superintendent with a year or less of experience. Many of these superintendents lead communities with high percentages of students who are economically disadvantaged, students of color, or rural students with less access to technology.

While the superintendency is one of the most rewarding positions in education, recent changes in the education landscape have also made it one of the most difficult. Nationwide, the turnover for superintendents is trending upward, and North Carolina superintendent turnover mirrors the nation’s. The superintendent must balance intense and often competing pressures including an ever-changing legislative landscape, reduction in the teacher pipeline, and of course the challenges and outright perils of operating schools in a time of COVID.

Amidst these challenges, however, there is one shining star that guides education leadership in the state. Meet the North Carolina School Superintendent Association (NCSSA) whose mission is to provide support to the state’s educational leaders through professional development, legislative advocacy, legal consulting, and a wealth of networking opportunities.

We at the SMT Center sat down with three representatives from this dynamic group, each with a unique perspective, to better understand NCSSA’s vision, how it supports its members, and how it has been affected by (and adapted with aplomb to) the teaching challenges presented by the pandemic.

Mr. Jack Hoke has been the NCSSA’s Executive Director for nine years after serving for 12 as the superintendent of Alexander County Schools in Taylorsville. He also served as principal for elementary, middle, and high schools in Caldwell County and other positions in school administration for 32 years. He has worked as an advisor to the State Board of Education and was appointed by Governor Perdue to serve on the Professional Teaching Standards Commission from 2006 to 2010. Now, it is his goal to inspire new and sitting superintendents and to ensure they have the tools, support, and contacts to find success and purpose in their work.

Dr. Rob Jackson is a NC native and proud graduate of its public schools. During his career, he has served in every capacity from teacher to high school principal, bus driver to Chief Communications Officer. He serves as superintendent for both the Carteret County Public School System and the Edenton-Chowan School System. While at the latter, he saw the school system’s Cohort Graduation Rate rise from 78.9% to 93% in just six years. He received the Dr. Sam Houston Leadership Award in 2017 and has been named NC High School Athletic Association Superintendent of the Year. And, as a clear indicator of his desire to see those he supports succeed, many educators in his district received leadership and teaching honors during his tenure. Dr. Jackson is also a mentor in the NCSSA Aspiring Superintendents Program.

Dr. Eisa Cox is a recent graduate of the NCSSA Aspiring Superintendents Program and the current superintendent of Ashe County Schools where she has risen to the challenge of educating during COVID by initiating some groundbreaking programs. In her very first year as superintendent, she worked to create and launch Ashe Online, a K-12 online portal that supports virtual learning, she redesigned the child nutrition program ensuring students could continue to receive healthy meals while away from school, and her team secured iCares grant funding to provide childcare during remote instruction. Dr. Cox has served as a science teacher, an assistant principal, and as Executive Director of Programs for Rowan Salisbury School System where she was awarded a $26.4 million 2020 U.S. Department of Education TSL Grant for “Accelerated Rown,” obtained over $350k in grants to support career coaching, and saw scholarships increase from $5.8 million to over $32 million in just five years.

Together, and along with their members, NCSSA supports educational leaders throughout the state in ways colleagues in their own district may not be able to do. “You can easily get caught up in the day to day,” says Dr. Cox, “but through the education and professional development we receive, we get back to the real priorities of the role: creating a vision for your district, talking through best practices, managing board/superintendent relationships, creatively using all our human resources, and of course critical teaching and learning.”

Dr. Jackson concurs. He notes that both rising professionals (in the Aspiring Superintendent Program) and sitting superintendents (in the Next Generation Program) need the support and opportunities for continuous improvement that NCSSA provides. “Novice superintendents are literally learning the job on the job! Having an executive coach, elbow to elbow, to guide and help answer questions and bounce things off is just awesome.” As a Thought Partner himself, he knows how both his experience and expertise impact the aspiring and burgeoning superintendents he mentors.

Has the group kept up with the pressures and challenges of COVID in the classroom? Yes! Even with last year’s restrictions, NCSSA was able to hold half-day leadership development programs and a full day on technical skills for the Next Generation leaders. The Aspiring Superintendents, meanwhile, completed six sessions, executive coaching sessions, weekly check-ins and both a summer and winter leadership conference. In every session, attendees (whether virtual or in person) have access to acclaimed national speakers as well as invaluable networking sessions with peers they know and thought leaders they might otherwise have no access to.

Says Dr. Jackson, “With COVID, Jack saw the need to pivot from a 60-minute Zooms where attendees were talked at. Instead, he created virtual breakout rooms that allowed people to chat in small groups and then rejoin the session. We had some outstanding conversations, and were able to bring attendees closer together from a networking and mentoring perspective.” Many attendees then took this technique back to their districts to engage both educators and administrators; this is an example of how NCSSA development programs inspire and improve real world practice — even during a pandemic!

(Editor’s Note: In our next segment, we’ll dive deep into the Aspiring Superintendent Program and how it has prepared new superintendents like Dr. Cox for one of the most challenging jobs in education today.)

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    Perspective | Hawks Nest soars to STEM School of Distinction

Perspective | Hawks Nest soars to STEM School of Distinction

April 7th, 2021

Congratulations to Hawks Nest STEAM Academy for being recognized as a Model STEM School of Distinction! Located in Gaston, N.C., Hawks Nest home to 350 students K-5 whose education is driven by scientific investigation, enthusiasm for problem solving, and a creative spark that puts the “A” in the STEAM Academy.

Hawks Nest opened its doors in 2016 as the first STEAM school in Gaston County. Principal Jill Payne notes that creating a STEAM environment from scratch required a real mindset shift for teachers, students, and parents, but that involving all stakeholders from the beginning built a culture of inclusion and collaboration that remains today. “Our goals is make sure students love school, and we work hard to create exciting and creative opportunities to motivate them to want to be here,” says Payne. “We engage students in hands-on learning where they explore content to make meaning of learning and applying that learning in solving real world problems.”

Since the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and North Carolina State Board of Education began recognizing schools for outstanding STEM achievement in 2014, only 16 schools have earned the model school designation. And in 2020, Hawks Nest was the only school to receive this honor. Principal Payne describes applying for this distinction as a years’ long process that started with building a foundation on the five overarching principles in the NC STEM rubric and then inviting teachers to seek out the personalized professional development opportunities and collaborative efforts that would ensure they could live and breathe these principles and share them with their students every day.

“Due to the hard work of implementing STEAM concepts through problem-based learning, our school has seen a significant increase in student achievement, with more than 38 proficiency points gained in four years,” says Payne, noting that the state’s honor validates the vision of leadership and commitment to it by families and members of the community.

So, what do students at Hawks Nest love most about their STEAM experiences? Robotics and the science Olympiad, of course, but also clubs that focus on “the genius hour” concept, allowing students to choose an area to explore and become an expert in. And, says Principal Payne, nothing quite beats starting every day at STEAM stations that wake students up with hands-on projects designed to create, design, and explore, sparking creativity and finding innovative solutions to problems.

Use this link to learn more about the STEM Schools of Distinction program.

Perspective | Explore summer programming at NCSSM

March 3rd, 2021

Although many students count the days until summer vacation starts, plenty of students also look forward to the summer sessions at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) and this year should be no exception.

Classes are open to rising 5th through 12th graders from anywhere in the world.

The Early Accelerator provides one-week courses for rising 5th and 6th graders. Courses run from late June through late July and the selection includes “Design for Change: Social Justice,” “Math Exploration for Curious Students,” and “Full S.T.E.A.M. Ahead – Hogwarts Express.”

The Summer Accelerator provides two and three-week courses for rising 7th through 12th graders and includes coursework in biotechnology, robotics, epidemiology, climate change, cryptology, and more.

Registration is open now and the complete catalog of courses is available online.

Classes are being taught in a variety of formats including:

  • Residential programming: Hosted in Durham and at Brevard College and open to rising 7th-12th graders, this coursework is hands-on with intense lab work.
  • Day programming: Hosted in Durham and available to 5th and 6th graders.
  • Online Programming: Available for rising 7th-12th graders.

Unfortunately, one of NCSSM’s most popular programs is already full for this summer.

Step up to STEM is a free one-week program for rising North Carolina 9th graders who identify as Native American, African American, or Hispanic American. This unique residential program provides under-represented students the opportunity to hone their skills in science, technology, math, and communications as well as benefiting from the unique enrichment activities throughout the area. Future program attendees can visit here for details and to apply early for the summer 2022 session!

Last year, as so many summer camps and educational programs shut down because of COVID-19, the staff at NCSSM innovated and shifted programming to virtual formats that reached approximately 1,100 students. School educators and administrators are thrilled to be able to invite students back to campuses this summer to get the “living and learning community component” that has made NCSSM summer programs a success for so many years.


(Editor’s Note: Photos provided for this story are from 2019 sessions; please take note that COVID-19 restrictions (including mask requirements) may be in effect for Summer 2021 programs. Visit NCSSM site for more information.)

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    Perspective | Lakeshore Elementary named a STEM School of Distinction

Perspective | Lakeshore Elementary named a STEM School of Distinction

February 1st, 2021

Congratulations to Lakeshore Elementary School for being recognized as a STEM School of Distinction!

Located in Mooresville, NC, Lakeshore is home to about 680 Kindergarten through 5th graders for whom the focus on STEM education is part of every problem they tackle, every assignment they work to complete, and every collaboration they forge with fellow students and teachers.

According to Principal Christopher Grace, the rubric for applying for the School of Distinction honor is extremely strict. The school demonstrated how professional development, implementation with the students, and even building relationships with business and community partners all work toward supporting STEM education not just as a short-term buzzword but as a sustained philosophy for years to come. They demonstrated (both on paper and during site visits) how the curriculum today truly prepares the next generation for a future career and leadership in STEM fields.

The drive toward a STEM-focused model began six years ago when Wake Forest Medical helped the school embrace problem-solving based learning. Parents were on-board from the start and, says Principal Grace, “The best thing about Lakeshore is our staff. No matter what comes their way—and this is true of STEM—they embrace it and go all in.” Students, likewise, took to the new focus quickly and seamlessly. Noted is a 5th grader who struggled his first several years at Lakeshore but once problem-based learning was implemented, he engaged completely in his work and his end of year testing soared. He’s gone on to a successful middle school career and teachers see a bright future for a once struggling student.

Today, while teachers integrate STEM principles into every class and activity, a few STEM programs have taken off in the hearts of students. The Robotics Club is among the favorites, as is the LEGO club that lets kids solve problems and get creative, while building something amazing. Says Principal Grace, “I think they all just love everything they can get their hands on.”

Use this link to learn more about the STEM Schools of Distinction program.

Perspective | NC Students excel at international STEM competition

January 6th, 2021

The North Carolina International Science Challenge (NCISC) is a high school STEM competition that crowns a select group of talented students to represent their schools (and their nation) in the Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition every spring. While this past year posed unique challenges for these students and, while the event was held virtually instead of in China, these students were not hindered by their limitations. Rather, they rose to the challenge of researching and collaborating from afar.

Let’s meet some of these terrific young minds on their road to NCISC success!

Esha Agarwal
Junior at Enloe High School

Esha began her STEM journey as an early and avid reader when she discovered “The Magic Tree House” series, a set of books that both lit her imagination and introduced her to the scientific method. Following quickly on the heels of this discovery, she participated in her first science fair in fourth grade—a rooftop solar energy project inspired by the movements of sunflowers—and today she is ready to participate in NCISC with her topic “A Smartphone Monitoring App for Bradykinesia, Rigidity, and Tremor Designed to Remotely Assess Parkinson’s Disease.”

While some of her peers found challenges resulting from COVID, Esha’s project was actually driven by it. She began studying Parkinson’s disease when her grandfather was diagnosed, and when COVID struck, she became acutely aware of the need for strides in telemedicine. She developed the OutSMARTPD app to help elderly patients, who can’t travel safely, better communicate their symptoms with their doctors, and to provide more objective diagnostics to, as Esha says, “Promote patient empowerment and self-monitoring/active participation in care.”

The only junior in this year’s group, Esha continues to take AP math and science courses at Enloe High School and notes that she has found tremendous support from her teachers and science fair mentors. She continues her Parkinson’s research and hopes to pursue a career in healthcare, possibly earning an MD-PhD, feeding her passions in both medicine and research.


Melissa Du
Senior at NC School of Science and Math

Like many inquisitive minds, Melissa Du attributes her early interest in the sciences to one special teacher, Mr. Robert Bedell, her 7th grade Life Sciences teacher. What drove her classmates crazy—heavy workloads, a fast pace, and difficult tests—actually drove Melissa’s passion for learning, specifically her fascination with anatomy and physiology following her first peek at microorganisms under a microscope. When this same teacher recommended Melissa for her very first Science Olympiad, her interest in human systems was ignited further. “I was astonished to learn that the term ‘hormone’ wasn’t solely confined to the context of moody teenagers!”

As with several of her colleagues, COVID’s restrictions actually drove Melissa’s research project, “A Versatile Stochastic Population Dynamics Model of Antibiotic Resistance, Tolerance, and Persistence.” While she has done lab work before, she was forced to take a more computational approach and found these models more versatile and efficient. She discovered that while a number of studies in the literature examined some combination of antibiotic resistance, tolerance, and persistence, none covered all three, so she decided this was how she should approach her project. When describing her research process, she notes, “It’s quite beautiful to recreate the essence of nature from man-made constructs, like code and math, and I’m continuously amazed by the rapid advancements made in Computer Science and the elaborate complexity of the field.”

Melissa continues to meet with her Research and Biology class at NC School of Science and Math (NCSSM) along with her instructor and mentor, Dr. Amy Sheck and finds both the hands-on research and thoughtful feedback from her classmates critical to her successes. She hopes to study Neuroscience or Computer Science in college and encourages future STEM students to “Always be open to learning new things because you never know what you might be fascinated by.”


Om Nerurkar
Senior at NC School of Science and Math

While Om can’t pinpoint the genesis for his love of math and science, he does remember being very young and making the connection between centripetal force and a spinning merry-go-round! Since then, he’s become an accomplished researcher, an aspiring scientist, and a dedicated communicator (in spite of—and perhaps because of—COVID’s impact on him and his colleagues). He attributes both his inquisitive nature and his continued commitment to “thinking computationally” to NCSSM, his Research in Computational Science teacher, Mr. Gotwals, and his mentor, Dr. Panoff of the Shodor Foundation.

While Om’s topic, “Estimating the Effects of Ocean Acidification on the Shellfish Industry: A Case Study in South Puget Sound,” seems nearly impossible to complete from the East Coast, Om insists that the geographic limitations and COVID’s restrictions changed his research strategy some but also encouraged him to reach out to peers and experts in ways he might otherwise not have. What began as pure experimentation evolved into the development of relationships with mentors, a campaign to build awareness about fossil fuel emissions’ effects on coastal communities, and—even closer to home—studying how the acidity in the Pacific could impact seafood in India, where Om’s extended family lives.

“I think it’s super important that we find ways to connect with each other in these trying times,” Om says, as he discusses his fruitful contact with peers, mentors, and even young researchers through opportunities like the State of NC Undergraduate Research & Creativity Symposium and Citizens Climate Lobby. While Om hasn’t settled on a future path yet, he loves climatology because it combines fluid dynamics, physics, chemistry, biology, and even socioeconomics and culture. He says, “As long as I’m solving problems, I’ll be having fun!”


Kayla Ruff
Sophomore at Hickory High School

Like many of her fellow competitors, sophomore Kayla Ruff found her way to STEM studies very organically and early. It helped that her dad is a biology teacher, but she recalls spending a lot of time outdoors, exploring and reveling in both the natural environment and the animals she learned about. When she discovered that she could study these ecosystems and work hard to preserve the animals she was so passionate about for a living, she was hooked.

Not surprisingly, Kayla’s project was the result of a discovery she made while exploring in her own backyard. “Determining the Ecological Impacts of the Invasive Land Planarian Bipalium Kewense: An Analysis of Predatory Behavior and Reproductive Potential” examines this strange creature and its potentially dangerous impacts to North Carolina’s ecosystem. Not hard to imagine, Kayla suggests, when you learn that if you cut the creature into pieces, each piece is capable of growing a new head!

Since Kayla hails from rural Hickory, she is particularly thankful for her experiences with science fairs in general and the NCISC in particular. She points to challenges in finding resources, mentors, and opportunities where she is but stresses that young people—especially girls—from rural communities should strive to pave their way in STEM fields. If there are no clubs, start one. No experts in your field at your school? Reach out on-line. “My advice to young girls,” she says, “would be to never let societal stereotypes interfere with your passion for STEM. People who follow their passions instead of stereotypes are ultimately the people who will make a difference in the world.”


Andrew Zhen
Senior at NC School of Science and Math

Andrew Zhen describes his entrée into the world of STEM as just following the numbers. Even from his time in elementary school, he recalls blowing through math tests and having a real affinity for computation. When he realized he could apply his love of numbers to real world problems through science, his course was set.

Andrew’s project, “Disentangling the Spatiotemporal Heterogeneity of Alzheimer’s Disease Using a Novel Deep Predictive Clustering Network” is the result of pure mathematics and a heartwarming personal experience colliding. Andrew plays the piano for residents at nursing homes in his community so he has seen first-hand the devastating effects neurological disorders have on people—but also the soothing power music can have on them. His project, then, allowed him to use his computational skills to get to the root of the problem and crunch data he collected and provide comfort at the same time.

As a senior at the NCSSM, Andrew notes that his time among an “uber-talented and diverse student body” has encouraged him to dream bigger and “accept the greater challenge.” He feels compelled to not just study but to excel for himself but also his peers and those in his community. His one piece of advice for the next generation of STEM students: “Don’t do science for the sake of anything other than enjoying it.”

Perspective | STEM leaders share their favorite holiday gifts

December 13th, 2020

To say that the holidays this year will be different from any we’ve known before would be the understatement of the year! So, why not make your gift giving something to remember this year?

Leave the socks on the shelf and instead focus on gifts that will stimulate the mind, unlock a sense of curiosity, and bring STEM to life for all the kids and adults on your shopping list.

The great thing about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is that learning about it feels an awful lot like fun and discovery. Kids who receive the right book, set, or gift card for an amazing experience won’t realize this gift is setting them up for a bright and bold future, but rather will thank you for the “toy” and set off to have their minds set afire.

We reached out to a few of our favorite scientists, engineers, and mathematicians for some ideas for their beloved STEM gifts and they did not disappoint…


  • International Cloud Atlas – Manual on the Observation of Clouds and Other Meteors – Although this book is written to train meteorologists, even weather enthusiasts and cloud spotters will enjoy this guide.
  • Mother Nature is Not Trying to Kill You – Prepare for the worst case scenarios nature throws at you! Extremely appropriate for 2020, this survival kit penned by Rob Nelson (with Haley Nelson) is the only guide you’ll need to successfully tackle wildlife, natural disasters, and everything else outdoors.
  • Super Science Experiments: Cool Creations – Make Slime, Crystals, Invisible Ink and More! – Oh, Elizabeth Snoke Harris, these are a few of our favorite things! This terrific book boasts nearly 100 experiments kids can do with household items without adult supervision. After all, every great scientist starts out making slime, right?
  • A Really Short History of Nearly Everything – A delightful read by acclaimed author Bill Bryson, this book breaks down mysteries of the universe, science, and humanity into bite-sized and delicious morsels, perfect for kids grades 5-8.
  • The American Practical Navigator – The book that hooked our meteorologist friend, John White, this classic touches on maritime navigation, weather, and heavy duty math including logarithms and psychometric tables. Definitely for the adult reader.
  • The Magnificent Makers Series – Boom! Snap! Whiz! Zap! The Magnificent Makers chapter book series is filled with science, adventure, and characters kids will love! Every book includes two science activities kids can do at home! A modern-day Magic School Bus for the chapter book reader!

Experiments and Kits

  • – Want to give the gift of experimentation? To release your own weather balloon, test the pH in your local water source, or track the duration of sunshine with a pattern sunshine recorder? Visit this site for all your equipment needs.
  • – The perfect subscription STEM kit for teens and tweens interested in chemistry. Each month, you’ll get 2-3 hands-on experiments (safe but exciting!) as well as accompanying virtual reality lessons for kids who want to take their lessons to the next level.


  • – This is a terrific site for STEM toys for all ages. From building circuits and designing simple machines to programming a mobile robot and assembling one of Da Vinci’s inventions, there are kits and games that are at once instructional and over-the-top fun.
  • – Another great site with tons of options to kickstart a love for STEM. Robotics, motorized cars, bridge construction, and invention are all facilitated with a variety of toy lines meant for tiny kids through teens.


  • Museum Memberships – Joining a great science or children’s museum is a brilliant way to support your local community, save a few dollars on entry fees, and visit often enough to see changing exhibits. (And don’t forget the gift shops for the cherry on top of a perfect day!)
  • Virtual College Course or Online Academy – Many universities (including MIT and Harvard) and independent organizations like NASA’s Aerospace Academy are offering virtual learning experiences kids (and adults) might otherwise not have access to. In some cases, classes like Calculus, Classical Mechanics, and Intro to Computer Science and Programming are free!


Happy Holidays from the SMT Center!

Perspective | Educational impacts of the North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair

November 18th, 2020

Science fairs have come a long way from the vinegar and baking soda volcanoes, and the North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair (NCSEF) is ensuring that students from all over the state and across grade levels are getting a real chance to shine.

The NCSEF provides the opportunity for students in 3rd through 12th grades interested in STEM fields to research the topic of their choice and present their work at a public competition with their fellow students. Kids come from all over the state, including from traditionally under-represented areas. Each year, the fair conducts thorough demographics research so that students from these areas can be reached through robust teacher workshops, outreach, and more targeted grant writing strategies.

When asked how science fairs stay relevant and fun, NCSEF’s Executive Director Theresa Gibson says, “Inquiry and design are the backbone of how professional scientists and engineers work every day in their careers. Supporting this inquiry and design with our K-12 kids, we’re giving them an opportunity for excellence and supporting to share their creations just as real scientists and engineers do. We’re bridging the gap between STEM education and STEM careers.”

Indeed, many of the elements to building a successful career in STEM are rooted in the very benefits that science fairs provide:

  • Increased organizational and process skills
  • Strengthened writing and communication skills
  • Creativity and outside-the-box thinking
  • Improved visual/spatial thinking and innovative problem-solving
  • Curiosity

Gibson also notes that while the fairs themselves are fun and enriching, so much of what NCSEF does continues to reach students long before (and after) the fairs are held. For example, the teacher-facing support they offer are designed to support student-led research through scientific inquiry and engineering design in all STEM instruction.

Supporting instruction that incorporates critical thinking; math analysis of data, graphs, and charts; computer skills; interpretation of scientific data; and a general increase in scientific literacy. The ultimate goal is to support students’ intellectual curiosity and breadth of scientific skills to prepare them for the STEM careers of the future. Further, NCSEF introduces students to professionals in STEM fields so they can ask questions, engage personally, and see in person what working in research, science, engineering, and mathematics means in real life.

Ana Ratanaphruks never fancied herself a scientist or particularly good at math. She liked crafts and cooking, but at the urging of her science teacher, she competed in her first fair in 8th grade with an experiment about different types of olive oil. And she was hooked! Today, she is a graduate of Wake STEM Early College and will pursue engineering in college. She says that science fairs had a deep impact on her life, she made lots of friends, got a chance to dazzle judges and professionals in the industry, and found her passion in STEM (which, she admits now “isn’t just about robots and microscopes”). She dreams of someday helping to bring STEM resources to rural communities and other kids who don’t currently have the experience and resources that she is so grateful to have had.

For more information about NCSEF, competing in a science fair, obtaining teachers’ resources, or volunteering, visit

Perspective | The ‘rural sauce’ and how zip codes don’t define success

October 11th, 2020

One thing all great scientists, pioneers, and discoverers have in common is their insatiable curiosity. Secretary Machelle Sanders of the N.C. Department of Administration is no exception to that rule, attacking every mystery with a “why” and transforming possibilities into achievements by asking “what if?”

Raised in Belhaven, N.C., Sec. Sanders began her adventures in STEM early when her parents gave her a chemistry set when she was still in elementary school. This piqued her interest in science, an ember fanned into a flame by her high school Biology and Chemistry teacher, Mrs. Sandra McCann. While her teacher’s lessons were rooted firmly in the scientific method, Sec. Sanders recalls that what she loved best about Mrs. McCann was how she replied to her “whys.”  She encouraged questions, recalls the Secretary.

“My ‘why’ would trigger a structured problem-solving process allowing for critical and analytical thinking, curiosity, creativity and the most rewarding part, which was finding solutions—validating my predictions or not.”

Her early education was not confined to her classroom, however. She took advantage of Belhaven’s small museum, entering with questions and leaving with a quest to know more. She sought hands-on experimentation and discovery, catching tadpoles, and observing butterflies (a lifelong favorite).

She graduated from Bath High School with just 62 other students and headed for an unbelievably huge NC State University. While initially she felt she’d missed opportunities afforded her big city school peers, looking back, she values the close, personal relationships she built with her teachers and the leadership opportunities and community engagements only a small school setting with that “rural sauce” could provide.

Still, she recognizes that rural communities (and students) face unique challenges from broadband access to transportation to recruiting educators. She continues to advocate for these small communities and wants rural students to know they are valued and that their “future success and destiny does not have to be limited by their zip code.

“Instead,” she says, “Let it be accentuated and accelerated by their rural perspective, experiences, authentic ability to connect to others, with a solid education as their foundation.”

Her passion for chemistry and biological processes eventually led to her receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, and launching her into leadership roles at Biogen, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, and Diosynth-Akzo Nobel, overseeing manufacturing, global quality assurance, and quality control. After years of hands-on pharmaceutical experience, she pursued a Master of Health Administration to support expanded responsibilities as a biotechnology and pharmaceutical executive.

These experiences and her passion for public service led her to where she is today; at the state’s N.C. Department of Administration, where she has real impact on policy statewide, transforming her passion for improving the lives of all residents into action.

Specifically, one of her goals is to recruit girls and young women into the STEM fields. She wants all girls to know that, through STEM, you can do whatever you want because your foundation of problem-solving is solid. So dedicated is she to supporting the next generation of STEM superstars, a colleague from her career in the biotech field acknowledged her impact by establishing the Machelle Sanders Science Opportunity Scholarship. This need-based scholarship offers assistance to students in the College of Sciences at NC State, with preference given to students from northeastern North Carolina counties — the very same region where Sec. Sanders made her first leap into science, math, discovery, and the never-ending pursuit of an answer to “why?”

NC STEM e-Update (Oct. 8, 2020)

October 11th, 2020

NC STEM e-Update
Twice a month the NC STEM Center provides an e-update on what’s happening in STEM, and their latest edition is now available for you.

View NC STEM e-Update in your browser by clicking here.

Not receiving an e-update? Click here to subscribe and get your personalized copy sent directly to your email address.

NC STEM e-Update (Sept. 24, 2020)

October 11th, 2020

NC STEM e-Update
Twice a month the NC STEM Center provides an e-update on what’s happening in STEM, and their latest edition is now available for you.

View NC STEM e-Update in your browser by clicking here.

Not receiving an e-update? Click here to subscribe and get your personalized copy sent directly to your email address.

NC STEM e-Update (Sept. 10, 2020)

October 11th, 2020

NC STEM e-Update
Twice a month the NC STEM Center provides an e-update on what’s happening in STEM, and their latest edition is now available for you.

View NC STEM e-Update in your browser by clicking here.

Not receiving an e-update? Click here to subscribe and get your personalized copy sent directly to your email address.