Teachers at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy in Champaign, Illinois, use their district’s curriculum as a springboard to create their own inquiry-based units. Here students are creating skin care products in collaboration with University of Illinois chemical engineering faculty. (Maya Israel)
Magnet schools focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at the elementary level are making a difference for students and teachers in numerous ways. Before becoming a STEM magnet school in 2011, Booker T. Washington (BTW) STEM Academy in Champaign, Illinois, faced some challenges. Its students came from predominantly minority, low socioeconomic status households, “and overall, there were low levels of academic achievement,” says Asia Fuller-Hamilton, BTW’s principal.
“Through specialized STEM magnet programming and recruitment efforts…we successfully diversified our student population and made substantial improvements in academic achievement,” she maintains, adding BTW has seen “significant gains in reading test scores (10% from 2010 to 2012)… [and] enrollment has increased from 133 students at the end of the 2010–2011 academic year to 318 as of January 2013.”
What caused this transformation? “At several schools we visited…we saw STEM as part of a special rotation or a weekly class. We knew that this simply was not the level of engagement we were looking for; we wanted total immersion, STEM on a daily basis,” explains Fuller-Hamilton. BTW developed “a special daily schedule and lesson plan template that allows teachers to integrate STEM across all grade levels and subjects,” she notes.
“Our curriculum is unique because we are using our district curriculum as a springboard to create our own inquiry-based units of study, providing our students with rigorous and highly engaging learning opportunities,” adds Martha Henss, BTW’s STEM magnet coordinator.
“[T]here are many aspects of inquiry that struggling learners find difficult, including a lack of background knowledge, limited experiences with problem-solving complex problems, and dealing with open-ended processes. At BTW, the team of teachers, administrators, and university and business partners have a deep commitment to providing authentic STEM inquiry experiences…[so all students acquire] the tools needed to be successful. Examples include providing multiple means of presenting information to students, such as through hands-on activities, videos, text, and class discussions,” says Maya Israel, assistant professor of special education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who works with BTW staff.
In BTW’s state-of-the-art STEM lab, K–5 students and teachers engage in project-based learning, with curriculum created collaboratively by teachers and external partners. Tara Bell, the STEM teacher who runs the lab, believes students have become “very excited about engaging in the practices of science” after being introduced to lab work at the elementary level and meeting role models in all stages of the STEM pipeline.
Professional development is key to the school’s success. “[BTW] is unique because our teachers are immersed in extensive professional development throughout the school year and summer months,” Bell points out. The school’s Professional Learning Community model is “embedded in everything we do, so our time is used more efficiently, resulting in a greater impact on student learning,” contends Assistant Principal Candace Gwin. After-school and summer workshops covering topics such as integration of Common Core State Standards for language arts into STEM and science content for elementary teachers—coordinated by Bell and supported by EnList (Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching and Learning) at the University of Illinois—have proven effective, according to Gwin.
“Over the last year, staff members averaged 68.5 hours of professional development,” reports Kristen Morris, district magnet specialist.
Pamela Galus, science teacher at Lothrop Science and Technology Magnet Center in Omaha, Nebraska, says her school integrates STEM topics “in many of the things we do…My kids learn elements of the periodic table, how to interpret formulas, genetics, geology, space science, botany, zoology, entomology, herpetology, [and] technology.” In addition, “we work with many local health colleges and groups with a program we started called Young Surgeons, to encourage students who are interested in health careers. The program gives [students] the background that will make future learning easier.”
After-school and Saturday camps focus on subjects “such as engineering, aerospace, robotics, geology, chemistry, and…our students are able to participate in many STEM competitions,” she adds.
Offering students a range of learning experiences is also paramount at T.C Miller (TCM) Elementary School for Innovation in Lynchburg, Virginia, says STEM Specialist Renee Anderson. “When I first came to TCM,” she recalls, “the school’s magnet was fine arts and science. As I became more educated in STEM (by attending several conferences within the state), I pushed to revamp our program by incorporating all of the components of STEM, not just science. Two years ago, our school’s magnet was changed, and we were designated as the division’s STEM elementary school.”
She continues, “All students K–5 come to me for a 45-minute class once per week [in which] they are taught to follow basic design briefs focusing on one or more of their content units of study. Some of the projects take one week, but most are more involved.” Students have designed projects such as “lighthouses, topological maps, mathematical logic games, patterned dances, and wood derby cars.”
Curricula at these magnet schools also provide learning opportunities that integrate the arts. “We have a large greenhouse, outdoor classroom, and a very large aquaponics system, where students study growth and development and look for ways to improve production. Students create and implement multiple presentations each year [in which] their creative talents shine through in i-movies and PowerPoints,” relates Galus. Students also “create sculptures using recycled materials” and “create environmental art. In January, our entire school becomes a rain forest, as children combine learning to create multiple types of writing to tell about what they’ve learned,” she reports.
At TCM, students are “immersed in a fine arts environment in which every student in the school participates in three to four ‘Open Performances’,” says Anderson. “These performances incorporate current units of study into either music[al] interpretations, dance performances, or original artwork. The fine arts team works diligently to [incorporate] units of study into their own specific fine art. [A recent] performance had students singing about ‘matter,’ dancing to multiplication facts, and displaying self-portraits through the layers of the Earth,” she remarks.
“Our students love to perform, and their learning is directly impacting their performance in the classroom,” she contends. “I love to hear the children break out singing the ‘matter’ song while they are working in the lab.”
Anderson adds that she and her colleagues appreciate TCM’s partnership with Art Zone, a local nonprofit that brings master artists to TCM classrooms to help students create original works of art. “Last year, every student designed and created a tiled mosaic of an animal. The mosaics were arranged on one of the hallway walls and feature the classification groups of the animal kingdom,” she relates.
According to Henss, at BTW, “it is not just a few units here and there focusing on arts; rather, the entire arts curriculum has been built to add depth and relevance to greater STEM themes and concepts.” For example, art teacher John Odum taught fifth graders how to design product labels and marketing materials for a shower gel line that students created in the STEM Lab and sold at a local mall. Music educator Miriam Cowen and K–5 students are combining music and technology by using professional recording equipment, iPads, and Garage Band music software. Cowen says her students have “an opportunity to learn the skills and technology [used] by professional music producers and engineers.”