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Picture it: A passionate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teacher discovers all of her educational supplies have been burned or smoke-damaged by a fire in the shed where they were stored. She considers giving up on STEM; but her principal tells her to keep her chin up, because she just learned the teacher has won a $25,000 prize to build the classroom of her dreams.

That’s how it happened for Renee Powell, who teaches at Lanier Elementary School in Blount County, Tenn.

Powell was named winner of ORAU’s 11th Extreme Classroom Makeover in March 2019, just a few weeks after the fateful fire. Dr. Theresa Robinson, Lanier’s principal, had been notified of the prize on the same day Powell reported the fire.

Robinson admitted that under the circumstances it was difficult to keep the secret.

“[Renee] was wearing me out, Robinson said. Have you heard? Have you heard? Have you heard anything? That’s all I would hear, and of course I had a hard time keeping from smiling.”

To win the makeover, Powell and her 5th grade students submitted a video that ORAU judges chose as the best among all entries for best explaining how $25,000 would impact her school.

She and her students created a dream STEM lab, complete with 3-D printers, virtual reality glasses, microphones and more made from cardboard, Styrofoam and paint.

What Powell and her students created for the video now exists in real life.

“The STEM lab came out exactly like I planned and better,” Powell said when the classroom was revealed in July. “We have so much now that we can expos our students to. For instance, virtual reality. Our fifth grade students study Pearl Harbor, and there’s a virtual field trip where they can actually go to the Pearl Harbor Museum.”

Powell’s lab also includes sewing machines, which she added after she noticed that some of her students were interested in fashion.

“What’s the first thing you need to do to be a good fashion designer? You need to learn how to sew,” she said. While Powell herself doesn’t sew, she’s hoping to identify people in the community who will help students learn.

Her STEM lab includes 3-D printers, robots, microscopes, drones and so much more. In another classroom, she created a video and audio studio where students will record and upload morning announcements to YouTube and eventually create a podcast.

“I have to learn how to do that myself,” Powell said.

Powell hopes her program will expose students to a variety of interests that could become possible careers.

“My whole dream is just to expose them to as much as we can and hopefully create a spark somewhere inside of them and a passion for what they think they might want to do in life, she said. And then when they get to middle school and high school, they can build on that.”

Robinson agreed that the new classroom will be great for Lanier’s students.

“Our kids are unique in that they’re not exposed to a whole lot of technology,” she said. Some of the things [Renee] has in her classroom our kids would never have the opportunity to see, use or be exposed to. So this gives them an opportunity to see what’s out there in the world. We have some kids that have never been to a movie.”

She adds that winning Extreme Classroom Makeover couldn’t have happened to a more deserving teacher.

“She has these huge ideas and they’re always for the benefit of the children. They’re always good ideas and we can’t afford them,” she said. “So she would spend her own money and try to find things second hand to try to make her ideas work.”

Powell’s secondhand finds were among the items lost in the fire, but she’s not thinking about those things anymore.

“The fire was, in my opinion, a God thing,” Powell said. "I didn’t need that stuff, you know? I have what I need now.”

Since Extreme Classroom Makeover launched in 2009, ORAU has given more than $384,000 to schools throughout East Tennessee.

Mrs. Powell's class at Lanier Elementary celebrates the reveal of their ORAU Extreme Classroom Makeover

Mrs. Powell's class at Lanier Elementary celebrates the reveal of their ORAU Extreme Classroom Makeover

Watch Lanier Elementary School's winning video!

Watch Lanier Elementary School's winning video!

Contact us

Want to learn more about Exteme Classroom Makeover? Contact Jenna Harpenau at 865.574.8669 or extreme.classroom@orau.org.