STEM to STEAM: Herbert Mills principal on the switch at her school

Editor’s note
We’re publishing today’s interview as Director Heather Sherman joins the Education Commission of the States’ annual National Forum on Education Policy  to present on “State Policies to Support STEAM Education.” You can follow her tweets here.

At Herbert Mills STEM Elementary School, the arts have always been a part of the engineering design process. So recently, administrators at the central Ohio school decided to make it official, successfully petitioning the STEM Committee of the state’s Department of Education to change Herbert Mills’ designation from “STEM” to “STEAM,” with the “A” standing for “Arts.” To find out more about what drove the change, we asked Mary Ellen Weeks, principal of the K-4 building in the Reynoldsburg City Schools district, to give us some insight:

Q: Recently, your school changed its designation from “STEM” to “STEAM.” What prompted this new designation, and what changes were involved?

A: As our school has grown and developed during the past few years, we have worked on deepening our roots in the humanities. We were the second STEM school in the district, so when we were developed they wanted us to be uniquely different from Summit Road STEM Elementary, which has an environmental-science focus. To this end, it was decided that our school would have a global humanities and social sciences emphasis.

During the past few years, our staff realized that our students needed more support in social and emotional learning, so we started to implement Responsive Classroom and restorative practices.

As our students felt more supported in these ways, we saw an open door to enhance our humanities focus. Through the skills our students are developing through our globally focused STEM program, they are becoming more able to collaborate, communicate and express their creativity in meaningful ways.

This year, we have been working to align our transdisciplinary problem-based learning with the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Combined with our focus on educating the whole child, we have refined our overarching goal for our students – we want them to be collaborative and sustainability-focused global citizens ready to take on the challenges of the future.

Q: Will your curriculum reflect a greater emphasis on the arts and humanities going forward?

A: When Herbert Mills made the transition from a traditional school to a STEM school in 2013, we were established as a global STEM school with a humanities focus. We have always prioritized the humanities and the arts, so we decided that applying for STEAM designation would cement this unique part of our culture and curriculum.

Moving forward, we are working to establish additional partnerships to bring the arts to our students and deepen existing relationships. We always strive to bring the world to our students and enable our students to share their ideas and work with the world.

Q: Will your school be recruiting new community/business partners to reflect the arts aspect?

A: Absolutely! We have already cemented a partnership with BalletMet for next school year. We are also looking for additional fine-arts partners to enhance our programming here at Herbert Mills.

The arts are an incredible tool to communicate with the world. To be engaged global citizens, our students must know how to use their creativity to design sustainable solutions to complex problems.

Q: Do you see this as an emerging trend in STEM-based education – to include the arts aspect more fully?

A: The arts are inherently integrated into STEM-based education in general because creativity and the iterative design process are foundational to any quality STEM program. We are trying to be more purposeful in the ways we infuse fine arts and humanities into our programming because our identity is rooted in the arts, culture, global studies and the humanities.

For both STEM and the arts, we believe the most important emerging trend is ensuring that empathy is foundational to the design process. To design meaningful, sustainable solutions to real problems, students need to have the capacity to empathize with those who are affected by those problems.

Q: How do the arts and humanities mesh with the traditional course work of STEM? Can you give some examples from your school?

A: When our students enter fourth grade, they use the technical and artistic skills they have learned throughout their years at Herbert Mills to build scale models of Ohio landmarks.

Students first research Ohio landmarks, and then they create paper scale models. Once their scale models are complete, the students use them as a basis to create a larger model of their landmark made out of cardboard. Students draw on their research and the mathematical skills of scale and measurement to construct their understanding of important structures in Ohio history.

Students then write, act and direct short films about their landmarks using green-screen technology. Later in the year, they construct virtual models of how various technological innovations have impacted the economic and social development in the state of Ohio.

Our third-grade students collaborate with the Ohio State University Corporate Engagement Office on a Smart Reynoldsburg project. Through this work, the students are challenged to imagine and create our city 50 years in the future.

Students closely partner with residents of the city, the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society and Smart Columbus, an organization reinventing central Ohio’s transportation with a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

These highly collaborative activities target higher-order thinking and deep engagement as students identify transportation gaps and issues, enhance their knowledge and understanding of cutting-edge technologies and create novel and complete solutions to complex problems.

To showcase their innovative solutions, students build Smart Reynoldsburg prototypes and gather feedback from authentic audiences by inviting school, community, higher education and business stakeholders to our building’s Innovation Night. During this special event, students demonstrate their learning and its relevance to the global society by enthusiastically sharing their novel ideas with the community.

Q: Do you think a different kind of student will be attracted to your school with its new STEAM emphasis?

A: Our diverse and unique student body is our biggest strength! We are very fortunate to work with the students here in Reynoldsburg. We are a district school of choice, so, if anything, we hope that our emphasis on STEAM ensures enrollment of students interested in fine and cultural arts and the resources required to create high-impact learning experiences for students.

Q: Based on your research of other schools and what is happening in your building, what advice would you give educators who might want to broaden their STEM schools’ emphasis to a STEAM designation?

A: Consider the needs of your building. We have an incredibly diverse school, and among our biggest assets are the many experiences our students and families have. It makes sense for us to have a global focus.

Choose one piece at a time to focus on. First, we worked on aligning Ohio Learning Standards with our transdisciplinary problem-based units. Then, we shifted our focus to social and emotional learning, restorative practices and ensuring that empathy was foundational to the iterative design process, while also making sure our students were developing the skills for higher-level collaborative work.

This year we have been working on aligning our work with the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Next year we plan to focus on our alignment with the fine arts, especially movement and dance.

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