Source: The Oak Ridger

From deciphering the ancient stories in fossils, to the physics lessons in friction, to assembling and operating robots, area teachers now have the latest educational tools thanks to the Rural Communities STEM Initiative Lab-in-a-Box program.

Roane State Community College is deeply involved in the innovative “Lab-in-a-Box” program, which wrapped recently at the Pollard Technology Conference Center on the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) campus in Oak Ridge.

It’s part of the Rural Communities STEM initiative (RCSI), which is a business-and-education partnership working with area school districts to provide hands-on learning tools in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs.

The nonprofit Roane State Foundation administers contributions from businesses, organizations and individuals for the programs, and Roane State professors have helped design several Lab-in-a-Box kits.

Developed in 2010, the Lab-in-a-Box’s earlier kits involved physical and earth sciences.

“The students are enthusiastic. The teachers are appreciative, and test scores have improved,” said Roane State Chemistry Professor Sylvia Pastor, who oversaw this summer’s workshops.

In the first rollout of this summer’s Lab-in-a-Boxes, middle school teachers switched roles with students to learn the intricacies of assembling and operating 1,000-plus piece robots.

Helping the educators were five members of the award-winning FIRST Robotics Secret City Wildbots 4265 team at Oak Ridge High School. Roane State adjunct professor Mark Buckner, a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is the team mentor. He said the high school students designed the robotics Lab-in-a-Box.

“Rural schools often have little funding and supplies, and this is an opportunity to get resources to my students,” said Susie Brown, a science teacher at Lenoir City Intermediate Middle School. She and other educators were given computer tablets containing step-by-step photo instructions for assembling the robots.

Clinton Middle School teacher Kelli Hansen noted that many careers now — and even more so in the future — are in technology and robotics.

“We want them (students) to have experiences in technology and not be fearful of it,” she said.

Roane State Geology Professor Arthur Lee led area educators through the July 14 “Lab-in-a-Box” about the ancient history of extinct plants and animals contained within fossils. Teachers received two dozen fossils, a guidebook and other handouts to help their students uncover the past.

“I think this is fantastic,” Harriman Middle School teacher Tori Henley said.

It’s also an inexpensive way for her to increase her educational toolbox, she added.

The final Lab-in-a-Box rollout this summer is titled “Frictional Forces.” Phillip Hyun, Roane State assistant physics professor, guided area teachers in using the weights, balances and digital scales contained within the large translucent boxes.

“These resources will be a great benefit to our small school,” said Rhonda Webster, a teacher at the Oakdale School in Morgan County. “Just to receive digital scales is incredible.”

Jade Mason, science teacher at the Philadelphia School in Loudon County, said the kit “so easily connects to the standards we will have to teach.”

Tax-deductible corporate and individual donations to help fund the Rural Communities STEM Initiative and its Lab-in-a-Box program can be made through the Roane State Foundation by calling (865) 882-4507. For more information, visit

Roane State, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, the East Tennessee Economic Council and numerous East Tennessee businesses have contributed to the initiative. Key leaders of RCSI include Chris Whaley, president of Roane State Community College, and Barry Stephenson, president and CEO of Oak Ridge-based Materials and Chemistry Laboratory, Inc. (MCLinc).

Bob Fowler is a staff writer for Roane State Community College.