Establishing a Schoolwide STEM Focus
Learn how an AZ school used the engineering design process to successfully establish a schoolwide STEM focus.
By Christine RowlanTeachers are good at juggling all of the new each year — new admin, new standards, new curriculum, new students, new assessments, new parent expectations, new fundraisers, new new new. It is so much new all the time that teachers quickly become desensitized to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Teachers smile, nod, and say thanks, without ever actually embracing the idea. The introduction of STEM can seem to many as just another “new idea” to accommodate and live through. Without teacher buy-in and a true understanding of STEM, it will become a buzzword box to check off. Through the use of the engineering design process any school can educate their staff and gain full support towards a STEM learning philosophy. The following steps will illustrate one school’s successful walk towards embracing STEM. Step 1: Ask Canyon Springs was an average public school with declining numbers in a northern suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. When a new administrator, Tricia Graham, stepped in she saw more than mediocre in the staff and the students and had a vision for the school to shine and offer a unique public school experience. Her research into achieving this led her to ask; What is STEM? How can STEM change this school? Is it possible to get teachers onboard and trained in STEM education? Step 2: Imagine As the school year wrapped up, the idea of STEM was sprinkled into staff meetings by the Principal. At the end of the year, Ms. Graham, strategically selected a leadership team from various grade levels. These teachers had been picked to participate in STEM training throughout the Summer and their learning was introduced to the staff during the pre-service back to school days that fall. The first half of the training focused on the why and what of STEM. What it could look like and what it could include. At the first break, educators (veteran and newbies) were throwing fits in full protest of how, when, and why, they would implement more NEW teaching practices. They had hit a wall and were in full offense against STEM. After the break, the summer STEM team engaged the staff in a hands-on STEM lesson that focused on team building. The STEM team came to the meeting excited and ready to persuade. The fact that they understood the teacher perspective allowed them to keep a positive stance and empathize with the fears of their teacher peers. They helped the staff realistically imagine the possibilities that STEM would offer the students. This leadership team was key to starting a strong rollout of imagining STEM on campus. Step 3: Plan After the first few weeks of school went by, teachers were brought back together to discuss action steps. This piece allowed everyone to be part of the planning of STEM. All teachers were able to give feedback and actual time was given to teams to work on how they would bring STEM to their students. There was a lot of “STEM activities” planned that first year. Teachers were new to the idea of STEM and many saw it as an opportunity for short challenges or quirky tasks added around the content. While teachers began experimenting with STEM in their classrooms the leadership team and admin continued to seek and share training and resources with the entire staff. It was this slow planned release of tools and resources that helped teachers own their progress towards a philosophy of STEM. It kept teachers engaged and allowed everyone to feel their trials were valued. The new resources allowed teachers more authentic options that showed STEM was not just a supplement or day project to fill the time. Defined STEM was one resource brought in that helped teachers see the full picture of STEM as the content, not a supplement. Slowly staff began to understand the importance of STEM education and ingraining it in the fabric of the school and their mission. Step 3: Create The first year, they established an outline of where Canyon Springs could go with STEM and the research behind STEM in practice. It proved to teachers the validity and value of a STEM focus. The leadership team grew to include teachers from every grade level in the school’s STEM professional learning community. The team created a STEM lesson plan document and shared folders using Google to help everyone stay accountable and learn from each other. Grade levels came together to ensure their plans were thought out and implemented accordingly. Admin also nurtured this focus and blocked out “STEM days” each month to spend walking the campus, visiting, and observing how STEM was unfolding at every level. The school cultivated a rich STEM experience throughout the year by instituting two annual STEM events: 1.) STEM Night and 2.) STEM Career Day. STEM night is where the community and various stakeholders are invited to showcase all of the STEM learning and student work. STEM Career day is when professionals are invited to share their experiences on a real-world path in STEM-focused jobs. This creation phase is where the school established the culture of STEM and began creating a true STEM mindset in the students, the staff, and the community around them. Step 4: Improve During the 5th year as a STEM-focused school, Canyon Springs began to understand that they had created something special and wanted to know if their model was of value. They decided to apply for STEM certification through AdvancEd. This process forced the school to refine their practices. STEM was not a one-day project and many teachers were already embedding STEM into all areas of the school day. STEM days were replaced with fully integrated STEM content in all grade levels. Teams began developing essential understandings and overarching questions for each quarter revolving around STEM. Teachers intertwined their learning standards and designed units to support each other across all curriculum areas. Students began to work on different pieces of the design process in all classes as a more genuine and meaningful real-world experience. Canyon Springs received their STEM accreditation that year, but this did not stop the school from further growth. The staff is still refining their methods and are ready to embrace a new round of design as they move forward with STEM. Getting teachers to embrace a STEM model takes time but is the key to any successful change in a school and proves that STEM is not just another idea or hoop to jump through but a better and more authentic way of teaching and learning. Teachers need to work through the Engineering Design process of asking questions, imagining the outcomes, planning action steps, creating solutions, and improving their ideas. Administrators that support this process and provide a strong vision will empower their teachers to implement a successful STEM model that develops a student body of future-ready problem-solvers.
About the Author: Christine Rowlan has been teaching at Canyon Springs STEM Academy in Anthem, Arizona for over six years. She is the 4th-grade lead teacher, co-lead in the Math department PLC on campus, and also facilitates gifted professional development for teachers throughout the district. Christine has her Bachelors in Early Childhood Education from Northern Arizona University and a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from Grand Canyon University. Christine’s classroom is a learning experience every day where students ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve in all that they do.