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NSTA Reports

Transforming to a Successful STEM School

By Jo Anne Vasquez, Michael Comer, and Jen Gutierrez

Creating a successful culture of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teaching and learning in any school requires commitment from the various educational partners to a common goal: a unified vision of what students need to achieve success, regardless of how success is defined beyond the classroom. Research described in STEM Integration in K−12 Education, a joint report from the National Academy of Engineering and the Board on Science Education, is clear and supports the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” 

Many individuals and factors within and without a school building influence the daily life of the school’s “ecosystem,” leading us to wonder how more holistic STEM education experiences could support all students. Can learning experiences in the school engage and enrich the community in which it exists? W.F. Killip Elementary School in Flagstaff, Arizona, took a systematic approach to implementing STEM teaching and learning, transforming itself into a successful STEM school, and in the process, found willing community partners eager to participate.

In 2005, Killip Elementary School was labeled an underperforming school, as measured by the school accountability system of No Child Left Behind. Principal Joe Gutierrez and his team analyzed the data to uncover what improvements could be made to address these deficiencies. They discovered a need to better align the curricula, instruction, assessments, and interventions with the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. According to Gutierrez, “The standards provided our students with an expected level of academic knowledge and skills, but what was missing was the application of that knowledge to the real world.” By 2008, they had raised and have since maintained student performance levels to a “Performing Plus” benchmark, in part by including real-world applications in the classroom learning experiences. The Killip leadership team implemented a cycle of continuous improvement to monitor and evaluate the processes used to determine the effectiveness of their practices. 

To maintain such a large-scale, systemic change, a sustained implementation plan is critical. Consider these four elements as you make transitions in your learning environments.

Assessment and Data 

Without a reliable assessment and data collection system, it is difficult to balance STEM integration with the core standards in English language arts and mathematics. Administrators and teachers frequently reviewed student testing data and used those analyses to identify students at risk of falling behind earlier and followed up with targeted interventions more quickly to keep them on a positive learning trajectory.

Common Planning Time for Teachers 

Weekly collaborative planning time is crucial to implement STEM education successfully. The school community worked together and changed how they used their planning time. Each team member is assigned tasks to prepare and share prior to the meeting, facilitating group discussions and collaboration.

Continuous Improvement Cycle

A culture of continuous improvement encourages teachers to reflect on their instructional goals and the effectiveness of each integrated unit. Before starting a unit, teachers review it, and if necessary, modify it to reflect changes in scope or relevancy. After each unit, the teachers review its execution and make adaptations based on its success and student engagement for the next time. 

Incorporating Community Collaboration

STEM-related community partnerships give students access to experts who model employable skills. These skills then are nurtured within the integrated STEM units. Building sustainable partnerships with community businesses and organizations promotes the success of the STEM units to the community and demonstrates how the education system operates, creating a culture of community collaboration.

Educational transformation of this magnitude requires a three- to five-year plan that includes activities that embed STEM into the school’s culture and climate. Instructional resources need to align with proven professional learning support at all levels.

Community and business partnerships allow students to discover the relevance of what they are learning and how it applies in different work and career paths. They make the learning come alive for the students. 

Evaluating the plan, the framework, the process, the instructional units, the teaching, and the students’ achievement is critical. This cycle of continuous monitoring and adjusting of the instruction based on the evaluations and feedback from all team members works to ensure success. 

Gutierrez has said if he had to describe all these efforts in one word, “it would be perseverance.” 

Jo Anne Vasquez has served as NSTA President. She is a science and STEM education author, consultant, and professional learning provider with Rocks to Rainbows, LLC.

Michael Comer is the director of science K–12 at Savvas Learning Company.

Jen Gutierrez is a K–12 STEM education specialist and serves as NSTA Division Director of Professional Learning.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association.Read the full issue now.

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