Guest post: What’s it like to be a student at a STEM high school?

Guest post by Sarah Wille, education research at the University of Chicago. Originally posted on the Outlier Reseach and Evaluation blog

Sarah Wille interviewed students from several STEM schools around Ohio
Sarah Wille interviewed students from several STEM schools around Ohio

In 2011, one of my first projects at Outlier Research & Evaluation was a study of inclusive STEM schools in Ohio that are part of Ohio STEM Learning Network’s (OSLN) Platform Schools Initiative. Part of our research plan included my favorite type of data collection: facilitating student focus groups. These focus groups were an essential piece of our work, enabling us to hear the student perspective on STEM schools.

I worked closely with two of the schools from 2011 – 2013. While all of the schools were initially designed around a set of common design principles, the schools’ contexts and histories differed. Yet during focus group data collection, students at these two schools seemed to be saying some similar things. I was struck by how frequently students talked about their relationships with teachers and students in their school, how they felt supported, and their descriptions of school as a comfortable space to learn.

In Winter 2014, I began qualitative analysis of the student focus group data to systematically examine how students perceived as their overall experience and membership in their STEM schools. I analyzed all three years of the high school student focus group transcripts and found that many students across the OSLN schools emphasized relationships in their school and the learning supports available to them.

Although students described diverse experiences in their schools, five common themes emerged across all four Ohio STEM Learning Network high schools:

1. The school is a family. Students reported that adults and other students in the school care about and support each other.

2. Students have decision-making power in the school. Students generally feel that their voices are heard and many students reported that they feel respected.

3. The school is a comfortable and safe space for all learners. Students indicate that teachers help students academically through personalized instruction and support, and teachers make time to help students.

4. Students know they are preparing for their future. Students realize that their school is academically challenging and provides college and career preparation resources. They understand that teachers believe and expect students to learn and that students are responsible for their learning.

5. It’s a different kind of school.

When STEM schools discuss their strategies, there is a lot of dialogue around subject content, pedagogy, preparation for STEM majors, and supporting the STEM pipeline. Yet the data indicate that the student experience in STEM schools also provide students with a sense of connectedness in their schools. In general, students that participated in our focus groups thought their school was different and beneficial to them not just because of the STEM content, but because of the learning opportunities and supports available to them, their interactions with adults in the school, and the value placed on them and their perspectives.

STEM schools can contribute to learning in many ways, from rigorous content and pedagogy to important psychological supports, community, and belonging.

What are your thoughts about STEM schools?

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