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After fire destroys STEM lab, school gets second chance with help from ORAU’s 2024 Extreme Classroom Makeover competition

Elk Valley STEM School teachers Madison Yancey and Mary Beth Seiber were selected as runner-up and viewers' choice winners of the ORAU’s 2024 Extreme Classroom Makeover competition.

ORAU Chief of Staff Ken Tarcza presents Elk Valley STEM School teachers Madison Yancey (pictured left) and Mary Beth Seiber (pictured right) the ORAU 2024 Extreme Classroom Makeover runner-up and viewers' choice awards.

A week after opening a brand-new STEM lab in the fall of 2023, Elk Valley STEM School faced a major setback when fire ripped through the portable unit destroying the structure and all that was in it. Through insurance compensation and funds secured by the school board, the Campbell County K-8 school raised enough money to replace the lab but didn’t have enough to equip the new space with the technology they lost.

A couple of Elk Valley teachers, Madison Yancey and Mary Beth Seiber, decided to apply for ORAU’s 2024 Extreme Classroom Makeover competition, going up against teachers from around East Tennessee vying for prize money to improve the technology in their classrooms.

The Extreme Classroom Makeover application process includes letters of recommendation, a written portion and a video submission. From the applicants, ORAU selects finalists and shares their videos on, inviting the community to vote for their favorite.

“Being chosen for this grant would not only benefit one classroom, but it would expand the learning of our entire school,” Seiber explained in the application. “When we think of this grant, we think of computer science, coding, iPads, more LEGO kits, 3D printers, robotics and VR headsets.” She went on to explain Elk Valley STEM School’s vision is to create a student-led environment with technology opportunities so students could be better prepared for a technological world and their future careers.

A panel of judges including former and current teachers selected Elk Valley STEM School as the runner-up in the 2024 Extreme Classroom Makeover competition. The runner-up receives a cash prize of $5,000. Meanwhile, community members voted Elk Valley STEM School as their favorite video. That prize is $2,500. Together, Elk Valley won $7,500.

Elk Valley STEM School wins the 2024 ORAU Extreme Classroom Makeover runner up and viewers' choice awards

Pictured L to R: Mary Beth Seiber (7th and 8th grade English & Language Arts teacher), Crystal Creekmore (Campbell County School Board member), Nancy Lay (Elk Valley STEM School principal), Madison Yancey (4th grade STEM teacher), Ken Tarcza (ORAU Chief of Staff)

ORAU surprised Yancey and Seiber with two checks on Monday, April 1, 2024, during an enrichment demonstration. As a cover, school board member Crystal Creekmore, who has been very supportive of Elk Valley’s STEM program, came to show students how engraving works. As she revealed the finished project, the teachers saw the words “Extreme Classroom Makeover Winner.”

“Our school is in a rural, low-income community,” Yancey said. “Winning grants like Extreme Classroom Makeover will enable us to provide more opportunities for our students.”

Ken Tarcza, ORAU’s chief of staff, rushed in with balloons in hand to present the checks.

“We love celebrating teachers,” Tarcza said. “It’s especially important to recognize and support teachers who are inspiring students to love STEM subjects. Science, technology, engineering and math are critical for our nation’s future. These are the disciplines that will keep the United States competitive on the world stage, so we are thrilled to see teachers encouraging their students to explore STEM opportunities.”

Eighth grade computer science teacher Shelby Woods of Sevier County Junior High School won the $25,000 grand prize. ORAU surprised her with that announcement on Friday, March 29.

ORAU started the Extreme Classroom Makeover program 15 years ago as part of the company’s ongoing efforts to strengthen STEM education throughout East Tennessee. Since then, ORAU has awarded more than $500,000 to more than 30 East Tennessee schools.

STEM teachers of third through tenth grade students that work for an East Tennessee public school within 50 miles of Oak Ridge are eligible to apply to ORAU’s annual competition. Applicants are asked to submit a video that creatively explains their need for technology in the classroom and how this technology will improve the educational experience of their students.

ORAU Media Contacts and Information

About ORAU

ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, provides science, health, and workforce solutions that address national priorities and serve the public interest. Through our specialized teams of experts and access to a consortium of more than 150 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local, and commercial customers to provide innovative scientific and technical solutions and help advance their missions. ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Media Contacts

Pam BoneeDirector, CommunicationsCell: (865) 603-5142
Wendy WestManager, CommunicationsCell: (865) 207-7953