STEM at the 2015 Connect for Success conference

Interested in bringing a STEM school to your community? Want to learn how others are improving their STEM programs? Read on.

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Here’s a look at what presenters from nine STEM schools shared with some of the more than 900 participants at the Connect for Success conference through Battelle Education‘s STEM track. Profiles were written by Ellen Belcher. Our first post in this series was Solo cups, shopping carts and science.

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Bio-Med Science Academy: Kids on (a medical) campus

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Bio-Med Science Academy, teaching medicine to a new generation

Bio-Med Science Academy in Rootstown, Ohio, is one of the few Ohio STEM schools that’s situated in a rural area. Housed on the campus of Northeast Ohio Medical University, it also is one of just four STEM schools in Ohio that is not connected to a school district.

More than 250 students from over three dozen school districts attend the school, and some have up to 50-minute, one-way commutes. Students commit to a four-year course load that is largely predetermined for them, and school is year-round.

Lessons are project- or problem-based, depending on the concept that’s being taught, said Stephanie Lammlein, chief administrative officer. Integrated learning is emphasized because “this whole siloed thinking has got to go.”

Twice a year, right before break, students have an “accelerated term” where, for two and a half weeks, they immerse themselves in elective classes that run the gamut from bridge-building to yoga.

One challenge in the school’s inaugural year was that 14-year-olds were on a campus that otherwise consisted exclusively of adult students. Stephanie advised that anyone interested in mixing those two age groups should “take a lot of Advil.” The positive thing for her students, though, was that they had to conform to adult expectations.

Stephanie said the academy wants to make sure that it’s giving back to the medical school, not just taking from it. For the partnership to continue, both sides needs to benefit.

With that concern in mind, she emphasizes the pipeline of young talent that’s being created for medical professions and the school itself. That synergy is important to funders of the med school.

Guidance counselor Stephanie Hammond said one of the things Bio-Med Science Academy does best is foster a sense of community. When students come to the school, they say they’ve “finally found their place.”

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Hardin Valley Academy: Abolishing isolation of teachers

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At Hardin Valley Academy, technology breaks down barriers

Hardin Valley Academy in Knoxville, TN, was built for its stakeholders – the students, said George Ashe.

Modeled on Stanford University’s, Hardin Valley has grown to 2,000 students in seven years. To give the school a small feel, it’s divided into four academies. The STEM academy is the largest, with 560 students.

George, who directs the STEM section, said he and his staff embrace the “Star Trek mentality” – “We wanted to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Hardin Valley staff are intent on abolishing “the isolation of teachers,” and to that end, they’ve created common workspace and shared classrooms.

They’re also breaking down barriers with students by embracing the kids’ preferred technology – cell phones, which teachers regularly use to communicate with students and for instruction.

A popular event at the school is the annual pep rally where students are encouraged to “embrace your inner nerd.” Students showcase their academic passions and are celebrated for working hard and being smart.

In the STEM academy’s first year, female enrollment was low, but by targeting young women, their representation has grown by 400%. Students also created a STEM sorority.

Recalling the time he watched a teacher integrate a lesson on Othello into a chemistry class on chemical bonding agents, George, a former English teacher, said, “I want teachers to try the most outlandish things with their students and they do.”

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Lancaster Independent School District: Problem-solving culture

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At Texas’ Lancaster Independent School District, STEM is not a program or isolated to just certain schools. Each of the district’s 11 campuses has adopted the problem-based learning philosophy that is the foundation of STEM curricula.

“STEM for us is more about culture and engagement,” said Kendra Johnson, noting that 84% of Lancaster’s, 7,100 students are economically disadvantaged. “We’re constantly branding our culture as a STEM district, not a program. … It is a movement to provide our children experiential learning.”

Efforts to infuse STEM-style teaching into each of Lancaster’s schools began in 2012, spurred by funding from Educate Texas and Texas Instruments Inc.  Today even the district’s youngest learners are immersed in science, including at the district’s all-day preschool program for 3-year-olds.

“For STEM to work, you have to instill a value of science, and it has to begin in Pre-K,” said Kendra.

Even in kindergarten, students are learning about the design process. Teachers introduce the approach, saying, “We have a problem, we’re going to solve it. We follow a process,” Kendra said.

The district’s STEM philosophy is:

  • Make science fun
  • Connect science to students’ every day life
  • Expose students to new opportunities
  • Incorporate technology
  • Bring science to life

Teachers are guided by the saying, “A good chapter in a textbook prepares kids for a test. A great authentic learning experience prepares kids for life.”

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L&N Academy:  Building skills through a “genius hour”


L&N Academy’s home is a historic building

As school sites go, the L&N Academy is among the more unusual. It’s in the historic 110-year-old Louisville & Nashville railroad station.

Funded in part with federal Race to the Top dollars, L&N opened in 2011 with the goal of being “the kind of school people come to visit to learn about (STEM) best practices,” said Becky Ashe, the founding principal.

Created “out of a community need,” Becky said the Knoxville region is struggling for workers to fill local business’ workforce needs.

Advocates of the school’s creation stipulated that the academy “should not look like a school or act like a school,” and it should be downtown – so it wouldn’t be identified with a particular neighborhood.

Students are selected by lottery, and each zoned area high school has an allotment of seats that is proportional to its enrollment. Next year L&N will have just over 600 students, with more than twice as many applying as get in.

Each year about 7-9% of students choose to go back to their comprehensive high school, and another 3-5% are “invited” to return to their assigned school, Becky said.

While personalized learning through technology is a hallmark of L&N, faculty focus foremost on relationships. “Technology does not come first,” Becky said.

The school’s emphasis on technology has been “humbling” for more senior teachers, but empowering for younger staff members and students. Cell phones are ubiquitous and their use saves the school from having to purchase digital technology. “Why not let them bring them to school?” Becky asked. “Most of our kids power down to come to school.”

Because students come from some many neighborhoods, L&N students have created a “”-like program for linking incoming freshmen to others with similar passions.

In addition, “Genius Hour,” which is embedded in lunch, brings students of like interests together and fulfills some of the relationship-building functions of traditional advisory periods.

Citing the school’s large number of students with Asperger’s syndrome, Becky said the school emphasizes soft skills that are necessary for 21st-century jobs. When students are disciplined for not listening, for example, they’re told they weren’t being professional, not that they broke a rule.

Becky said Ohio is “more forward thinking” than Tennessee because school funding follows that state’s students who transfer to a STEM school. That was not the case in her state until recently. “Your systems,” she said, “play better with each other.”

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Marysville Early College High School: Born in tough times

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Marysville Early College, rethinking school to retain students

Marysville Early College High School was born in tough times. A levy had failed, the community was divided and a new superintendent had come onboard.

“What a time for innovation,” quipped the school’s Jodi Robertson.

Though the Union County, Ohio, school got an important boost by winning a $12.5 million “Straight A Fund” grant, Jodi insists that even without that support something new and different was going to happen. The community was eager to invest in an initiative that keeps more students in the community.

After meticulously researching what other STEM schools were doing, a “very large committee” borrowed from others and conceived new practices they believed would work for their community.

The school’s pillars would be Habits of Mind  – specifically, instilling flexibility, outside-the-box thinking, resilience, collaboration, communication and self-sufficiency.

The Marysville team said that when the school opened in August 2014, it had no special technology, but it was rich in risk-takers who were passionate about being involved in a “living, breathing experiment.”

One year into the effort, what are the school’s “non-negotiables”?

The staff is focused on mastery learning and interdisciplinary work, while modeling and practicing the design cycle.

What about challenges?

Teachers struggle to cover all of their content objectives and still have time for managing learning projects.

Insistent that the school isn’t or won’t ever be a “final product,” one team member said, “Every year we will have a new prototype.”

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Metro Early College and Metro Institute of Technology: Habits for life

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Students at Metro schools build “habits” for success in college and career

This fall Columbus’ Metro Schools will open the Metro Institute of Technology, a 5-year career-tech program.

MIT will be the network’s third school and was developed in partnership with Franklin University and Columbus State Community College.

Situated at Franklin University – because most Franklin students attend at night, leaving plenty of unused classrooms during the day – the STEM school was created for students who are eager to join the workforce.

Specifically, MIT will offer stackable credentials in computer science, information technology, manufacturing, medical technician and engineering science.

Metro Schools got their start in 2006 when an early college academy was created in partnership with The Ohio State University and Battelle, a research and development institute. Initially a consortium involving 16 Franklin County school districts, the high school in 2012 became independent.

Seven years later, it started a middle school because too many students were coming to the high school behind. Today those schools enroll 720 students – chosen by lottery – and there’s a waiting list of 200.

While half of their students are from Columbus City Schools, Metro Schools draw from 29 districts.

Students spend the first three days of the year being introduced to the “Metro Habits of Heart and Mind,” which promote being engaged and inquiring learners; effective communicators and collaborators; critical thinkers and active and responsible decision-makers.

After earning 18 high-school credits and taking the ACT, students give “gateway” presentations where they recount their accomplishments and share why they’re ready to begin taking college classes.

Meka Pace, Metro principal, explained that Metro’s commitment to mastery learning is essential for ensuring that students are ready for collegiate work. “How can you ever meet a standard of college-readiness when the foundation is not strong?” she asked. If students “pass a course with a D,” they’re not really ready to move on.

Anthony Alston, an assistant principal, said he was initially skeptical of “mastery learning,” but now believes it “helps to close the gaps for students who having a hard time with the traditional grading system.” Metro Early College requires all of its students to complete an internship and capstone project. Last year, Meka said, one student worked with an OSU cancer researcher and her contributions were so significant she was invited to present at a scientific conference.

In middle school, Metro students take a dozen different 8-week science courses designed to introduce them to a range of fields before they get to high school. Among the offerings is “Swimming in the Gene Pool.”

Metro tracks its students’ college completion rates using data from the National Student Clearinghouse, but it’s also creating an alumni association to support and monitor their progress.

After their Metro experience, even if students drop out, “they know how to problem-solve and go back,” Meka said.

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Nash-Rocky Mount Early College High School: High expectations, higher results

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Design challenge competitions help Nash-Rocky Mount students practice real-world skills

Students at North Carolina’s Nash-Rocky Mount Early College High School sign on to attend for five years. One payback is that most also graduate having earned a free two-year college degree.

An AVID-certified school, Nash-Rocky Mount was one of North Carolina’s first early college high schools when it opened in 2005.

“We strive to help students see the relevance of what they’re doing,” said Tabitha Whitley. Curricula focus on writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization and reading.

As part of their ongoing assessments, teachers assign each of the school’s 250 students to one of four “tiers.” Students are required to help in the evaluation by rating their college readiness, academic behavior and content knowledge. Among the long list of skills they score are their self-discipline and homework completion.

In an effort to promote “constant reflection,” students update the ratings every three weeks.

“Most of the time, they are fairly honest,” said Tabitha.

Students who are placed in Tier 3 and Tier 4 – the lowest-performing rankings – participate in creating a personalized education plan, and their parents are involved, too.

School starts at 10:30 a.m. and finishes at 5 p.m. Students are required to use the Cornell Notes style, and collaborative group work is part of every class.

While many freshmen initially resist fully participating in the group work, they quickly learn that “their voice is important, and they have to start using it,” said Carey Davis.

Freshmen in particular are counseled frequently to “protect” their GPA, a message that resonates after they take required college tours. Carey said she has noticed that when students are taking college and high-school classes simultaneously, some focus more on their college grades. They don’t understand that neglecting their other work can prevent them from getting into their preferred college.

Conversations with students are guided by the Issaquah Protocol, which is designed to encourage problem-solving and active listening.

When it comes to recruiting, current students are Nash-Rocky Mount’s “biggest cheerleaders,” Tabitha said. The upperclassmen aren’t ashamed to tell potential students, who are selected by lottery, they should be ready to do two hours of homework every night.

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Rosalind Franklin STEM Elementary and Delta High School: Students beside scientists

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A close relationship with with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is key to success for Rosalind-Franklin and Delta

STEM efforts in the Tri-Cities in Washington state include the Rosalind Franklin STEM Elementary and Delta High School. This fall three additional STEM elementary schools will open.

Created in 2009, Delta enrolls students from three school districts, and it partners with Battelle’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Columbia Basin College and Washington State University-Tri Cities.

Its standards-based curricula is designed “for all students, not sub groups,” said Battelle’s Ann Wright-Mockler.

At Franklin STEM Elementary, Hanford’s LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) is an important partner and has assisted students in design challenges – including building a model interferometer.

Fourth-graders have simultaneously learned about literature, art and social studies through project-based learning dubbed “Andy Warhol on the Oregon Trail.” In addition to reading literature related to that period, the students designed their own Warhol-like art from Oregon Trail illustrations.

First-graders at the school studied electricity, circuits and switches and improved their writing skills by developing an instruction manual about how to make a light bulb come on. In 4th-grade, they’ll come back to some of what they learned and reverse engineer a toy.

Yet another design challenge teachers have created is constructing a model house for the “Three Little Pigs” that can withstand wind from a fan – which will represent the Big Bad Wolf’s huffing and puffing.

“Teachers come up with the ideas for challenges after looking at standards,” Ann said. “They’re looking for natural connections.” Design challenges and problem-based projects are “always based on the standards.”

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STEM School Chattanooga: College for every student

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STEM School Chattanooga, where students build workplace skills every day

Teachers are facilitators at STEM School Chattanooga. Rarely will you see someone standing at the front of the room lecturing – unless it’s a student.

Principal Dr. Tony Donen also said teachers don’t talk or worry about standardized tests until two weeks before the tests are given. If students do advanced work, he said, “testing will take care of itself.”

At STEM School Chattanooga, teachers strategically focus on different workplace skills each year. In 9th grade, for instance, the emphasis is working well with others, while 10th-graders get lots of practice and feedback about holding teammates accountable. As juniors, students pay close attention to time management, and then in their senior year, networking is emphasized.

Tony said, “School design should be based off your mission.” At STEM School Chattanooga, the mission has led to the creation of a “fab lab,” “think space,” and standards-based grading.

In addition, all students take one or more college classes. Last year 90% earned passing grades in these dual enrollment courses.

Partnerships – with businesses, cultural organizations and others – have been essential to the school’s success. Those relationships have been so positive that word has spread and administrators don’t have time to work with all the groups that offer to participate in the school’s programming.

A priority for next year, though, is collaborating with a 19-year-old in London who is working on a technological innovation.

“We’re not looking for money or for you to come to our class and tell us how to be an architect,” Tony said. “We don’t want stuff.” Rather, the need is for outside professionals to brainstorm about ideas related to the real world that will lead to high-school learning opportunities.

“If you came to my school,” Tony said, “no one can recite the mission statement. But you will be hard-pressed to find a student or staff member who does talk about innovation, collaboration and critical thinking. … We believe that when students own their learning, everyone wins.”

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