STEM Education

STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education is taking off, in large part because of recent national attention, as indicated by the White House website. For example, President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign focuses on improving students’ STEM participation and performance. The campaign includes efforts from the federal government, leading companies, foundations and nonprofits, and science and engineering societies.

Similarly, this past July, the president unveiled a plan to create a national STEM Master Teacher Corps, which will begin in 50 locations across the country, each with 50 exceptional STEM educators. Through the next four years, the corps will expand to include 10,000 of the best STEM teachers, who will make a commitment to champion the cause of STEM education and will receive additional resources to mentor math and science teachers, inspire students and help their communities grow. The program will launch with the $1 billion allocated in the 2013 budget plan currently before Congress.

At the same time the Master Teacher Corps was announced, the Obama administration announced the immediate dedication of $100 million from the Teachers Incentive Fund to help schools establish well-defined, attractive career paths in STEM education for teachers who excel. The program will require these highly effective teachers to model STEM instruction for their peers and take on additional responsibilities in their school districts.

All of this attention is designed to encourage collaborative learning and critical thinking so that our students can compete in a global economy once they reach adulthood. Here are the stories of two STEM schools — very different from one another — that are working to that end.

Suburban Ohio
Around 2007, desiring a series of STEM schools connected through public/private partnerships so lessons learned could be shared with other STEM schools in the state, the state of Ohio created the Ohio STEM Learning Network and announced it would award grant monies for the start up of STEM schools. Leaders in the Dayton region liked the idea, so Wright State University (WSU) administrators took the lead on submitting a grant proposal, working with a host of supporters and partners. The grant was awarded, and the Dayton Regional STEM School in suburban Kettering began with a class of ninth graders in 2009.

“Through the creation of the Ohio STEM Learning Network,” says Laurie A. McFarlin, director of Communications and Partnerships with Dayton Regional STEM School, “different hubs were designated in different regions across the state. In Dayton, it’s really the partnership of the STEM school, WSU and the Air Force Research Lab that makes up the hub component, and we have a lot of partners who participate in a variety of ways in the work we do at the school. We call this a platform school and training center for STEM education and initiatives.” The program has been so successful that this fall the school boasts a combined middle and high school campus serving grades six through 12.

“In the Dayton region,” says McFarlin, “the hub and school sort of operate as a single entity, recognizing that perhaps the school concentrates on the day-to-day business of educating students and the hub provides the foundation for keeping alive the connection to the real world and what’s needed as students come through the pipeline.”

The Dayton Regional STEM School is, in effect, a district of its own and, like other districts across the state, receives state funding based on its student population. In addition, administrators continue to seek and apply for funding opportunities.

“One of the things we’re looking at as we move forward on renovations to the building we’re in, which is a former big-box retail space,” says McFarlin, “is asking elementary questions, like ‘What are the kinds of activities and experiences we want to have happen in this space? What are the ways we want to facilitate learning within our four walls?’ We believe there needs to be spaces that allow us to do a number of different things. Sometimes that’s lab space for exploration, sometimes it’s space where you can spread out and make a mess, sometimes it’s an extension of the outdoors and sometimes we need traditional classroom space.”

One design element that was important in transforming the retail space to a school was transparency. “We want our students to see the projects other students are working on,” says Matt Grushon, coordinator of the Dayton Hub of the Ohio STEM Learning Network. “We want visitors to see what the students are doing. We also want students to see adults in their meetings — how they approach their work.”

Beyond transparency, the school has a variety of learning spaces to accommodate different needs, including tile and carpet flooring, open gathering spaces that lend themselves to students working in small groups and moveable furniture. “I joke that I never quite know what to expect as I come around a corner,” McFarlin chuckles.

The Dayton Regional STEM School doesn’t look like other STEM schools. In fact, Grushon says that no two STEM schools will look the same either from facility or programmatic standpoints. “That’s a good thing,” he acknowledges. “To do STEM education well means you are providing what’s right for your area. My hope is that they all are doing what they need to be doing to be successful.”

Rural Washington

In rural Toppenish, Wash., Toppenish High School serves a high-minority (95 percent), high-poverty (100 percent) student population on the Yakama Indian Reservation. In 2009, Principal Trevor Greene began adding STEM education to the curriculum to provide students an opportunity to succeed.

“We started with one introduction to engineering design,” Greene recalls. “What really made it work was that, instead of sending one teacher to training, we sent three and had all of them commit to teaching the course. They started collaborating and broke the closed-door, work-by-yourself barrier.”

Because the course generated such interest, two more were added the next year: aerospace engineering and civil/architectural engineering. Between the three, 17 classes were taught. In 2011, additional courses were offered, including principles of engineering; digital electronics; and a full-scale biomedical program that includes human body systems, principles of medical science and medical interventions. The number of STEM classes taught increased from 17 to 27. “This year,” Greene says, “we’ve just about reached capacity with somewhere between 27 and 30 classes being taught.”

Teachers were trained by Project Lead The Way (PLTW), a provider of STEM education curricular programs. (The curriculum, delivered through PLTW’s Virtual Academy, is free. Costs are incurred for classroom equipment — computer software and kits for hands-on activities — and required teacher training.) “Teachers are always sent in pairs or triads for training,” Greene offers, “never alone. If I lose a teacher, the program is sustainable.”

In seeking to add STEM curriculum, Greene sought funding support. Some of that came from Project GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a six-year federal grant program. Some came from Title I funding, and some came from Title VII funding. “Once we started making improvements,” he observes, “we gained district support through the school board and attained district funding.”

Greene echoes Grushon when he says that one way for STEM schools to be successful is to seek partnerships that will benefit the school as well as the community. Among the partnerships he formed is one with Washington Beef, the area’s biggest employer. “The relationship positively promotes the industry in our community and supports what we’re doing in the school,” he says. “People want to help you succeed in public education, but you have to be creative with what you can do. In some cases, they don’t have something that fits now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t later on. I am fortunate in that I have the right people in the right seat of the bus, which frees me up to do things that traditionally I couldn’t do. At the same time, it would be nice if there was someone in our district who could do that on a full-time basis. Maybe larger districts could have someone do this. Of course, that’s kind of a double-edged sword because there’s no one who knows better what the school needs than the principal.”

Physical support of Toppenish’s STEM program was serendipitous in that a remodel had been started a year before the program’s launch, providing some expansion. “We’re approaching science classrooms as a college does,” says Greene, “where teachers teach in different rooms rather than being assigned a permanent classroom. It allows me to shift teachers. And teacher prep space is being used every period of the day.”

Two schools. Two different approaches to facilities and funding. Two success stories. One bottom line: “We have to give students tools to succeed in a global economy, and that’s found in the STEM area,” Greene sums.

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What Are STEM Schools’ Facilities Needs?

Because STEM education is experiential and project based, as opposed to straight book learning, the physical facilities have some special needs, not the least of which is open space. “Project-based learning has been around for a while and isn’t just for STEM schools,” says Julia McFadden, AIA, project architect with Svigals, New Haven, Conn., “but it works well for them and that gives rise to the way you think of the classroom.” Here is what the experts recommend.


Flexibility: “STEM programs differ from traditional science-based and math-based curricula in that they rely on collaboration space, stronger adjacencies and the ability for flexible learning environments,” says Mitch Kent, AIA, associate principal with Seattle-based Mahlum. “For instance, in science classrooms, the traditional fixed peninsula configuration is being replaced with mobile lab tables to allow daily or hourly reconfiguration.”


McFadden agrees, also observing “a desire to break down the walls to spill into a corridor, so we’re seeing more moveable walls or hinged doors that roll up.”


Organization: Flexibility gives rise to organization. In this case, a standard locker isn’t enough space for students to store their projects, and that’s the use of classrooms or hallways or alcoves a way to store and display projects in progress.


Similarly, the project-based orientation of a STEM school means that some rooms — such as engineering rooms, have similar needs as an art room, including storage for the materials the students are using and sinks with water accessibility. “The integration of art into STEM has been coined STEAM,” notes McFadden.


Transition Space: One hallmark of STEM schools is the building of partnerships with local industries and colleges and universities. The curriculum is being designed to develop and strengthen the pathway from middle school to high school to college to career. That’s evident in the school design via features that are similar to those found in a higher education setting, such as a lecture hall.


Durability: “I think durability of finishes is key,” says Kent. “For example, eliminating carpet and using rubber flooring or polished concrete allows things to be a little bit more ‘mad scientist’ where, if something gets spilled, nobody gets upset.”


McFadden adds that, via partnerships, industry professionals and college students work in STEM schools, calling for finishes that are slightly higher in sophistication than found in a typical high school to capture the sense of a higher education environment.