Two weeks ago I stood in the gymnasium of Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee to participate in the ribbon cutting of the region’s new science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) middle school. An overflowing crowd of excited students, parents, business leaders, and elected officials lined the gymnasium and wound through the hallways to hear how the school was going to stand out in a region already bustling with STEM activity. When the oversized gold scissors cut the ribbon at Innovation Academy to formally declare the school open, it also unleashed the power of the statewide STEM network into the region.

Innovation Academy is a platform school of the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN), which is a public-private partnership between Battelle Memorial Institute and the Tennessee Department of Education. Its mission is to promote and expand the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics throughout the state’s K-12 schools. To date, the TSIN has five STEM platform schools and five regional STEM innovation hubs located throughout the state (Chattanooga, Cookeville, Knoxville, Nashville, and Tri-Cities). An additional hub and platform school will be established in Memphis in the coming months.

Platform schools are different from typical schools in Tennessee. The TSIN schools are aligned to common design principles and serve as laboratories of innovation for STEM education best practices to be shared throughout the state via the Network. Many platform schools put technology in the hands of students on day one, design classrooms with moveable tables and walls to encourage student collaboration, and develop cross-curricular activities to incorporate all subjects into a new way of teaching and learning. It’s also common to find a local STEM professional, such as a chemist from Eastman Chemical Company or a mechanical engineer from Nissan North America, actively participating in classes and lending his or her expertise in a hands-on student project.

These experiences are made possible through the support of the TSIN’s regional STEM innovation hubs. Hubs are coalitions of business partners, K-12 and higher education experts, and community groups committed to improving access to quality education by drawing upon the STEM expertise in a region. Regional innovation hubs also provide ample professional development opportunities to a region’s K-12 teachers, in addition to hosting regional meetings to address areas of need or interest.

The statewide impact of the TSIN is realized through the collaboration among regional innovation hubs, platform schools, and committed partners. Best practices developed in platform schools will be shared with other schools in the region and across the state for the benefit of all students. If a particular professional development project deployed in Cookeville proves to significantly improve teaching practices, we want to share that project with teachers in Martin, Columbia, or the rest of the state. If a particular curriculum increases student achievement, we want to share that, too.

The ribbon cutting meant more than just another school opening for the Network. It symbolizes the commitment of partners to a new way of teaching and learning and to a new level of collaboration across the state.