5 keys to a successful STEM program at your school

One principal reveals the science behind starting a successful STEM program

stem-studentsInterested in making the jump to STEM learning at your school? Mine was too. As an elementary math magnet school for nearly two decades, Mound School was looking for a way to further incorporate science into the curriculum. After receiving a federal grant from the Magnet Schools Assistance Program, we altered our approach and sought to transition to a STEM curriculum.

Now in our first full year of implementation, we have a few suggestions to help other schools replicate our success.

1. Integrate hands-on practice
Historically, our curriculum was primarily focused on math integration with some teachers offering science lessons a couple times a week, while others only a couple times a month. In order to properly become a science magnet school, we needed a new approach. One way we sought to better integrate science into our curriculum was by dedicating one classroom as the science lab, a space for students (and teachers!) to practice science in a hands-on way.

We also pursued several strategic partnerships with local farms, allowing us to connect our students to the agriculturally rich community in which we live. In addition to these partnerships, we also established a school garden. Both of these opportunities have been a great way to transform traditional classroom learning into a hands-on practice. By allowing students to take variables discussed in the classroom and put them to the test in their garden, you are giving them real-life insight into the experiences of both scientists and farmers.

(Next page: Contests, incentives, iPads, and more tips to enhance science)

2. Increase digital access school wide
In addition to desktop computers for teachers, each fifth grader also receives a Chromebook to use throughout the academic year, and we are in the process of implementing iPads into each classroom. With the grant, we were fortunate to receive a new computer lab, thus further increasing access to digital tools throughout the school.

Contrary to previous generations of students who prefer to read from hard-copy text, we are finding that students are becoming increasingly engaged in reading texts and other course materials from a tablet because they are fascinated by the technology in their hands, thus making our digital transition run even more smoothly.

3. Promote engagement with programs and incentives
Since transitioning to a STEM curriculum, we have worked to integrate engineering lessons into the classroom by linking it with math lessons and providing after-school courses in engineering and robotics.

Contests have been a great way for us to promote interest in STEM curriculum, while also encouraging our students to read.  Teaching young people to read, after all, is still the most important thing we do in this business.  MyOn, a digital literacy platform, has been an invaluable resource to our transition to STEM as the critical thinking skills required for success demands that students become strong readers as early as possible. The program, which is free to families, provides students with access to thousands of books catered to each student’s unique personal interests and reading level. Teachers are able to use the books to supplement their curriculum and enhance learning both in the classroom and at home through assigned reading minutes.

In a recent contest, myON selected 25 STEM books for our students of all reading levels. Surprisingly, the results of the myON Principal Reading Challenge showed that the most participants who read all the books were young students in grades K-3, and more than 50 percent of those who completed the challenge were girls.

4. Support your teachers, support your program
Like most transitions, our shift to a STEM curriculum has not been easy. Teachers are artists and each approaches their craft in a different way. While some were reluctant, we have done our best to support our staff with additional PLC times to foster staff discussion and collaboration. It is important to emphasize that our main goal is to serve our students and provide them with the best education possible and, although there have been hiccups along the way, I feel very confident that our teachers are doing a great job of implementing STEM in order to achieve this goal.

5. Engagement is key
The key to any successful STEM program is engagement, which can manifest itself in a number of different ways. Engage your students in the world around them by bringing projects outside of the classroom, like a school garden. Engage teachers in collaborative projects. Transition can be scary, so allow your teachers to collaborate and experiment to find the practices that work for them. Seek community engagement in your cause as well. Partnerships with local companies, museums, farmers, etc. can all be utilized to enhance your curriculum, but it is up to you to pursue them.

Since transitioning to STEM, I am seeing engagement on a level that I had not seen in the past. By connecting what students are learning in the classroom to hands-on activities, and increasing involvement with community members, we have created a strong, well-rounded curriculum designed to give our students a 21st-century education.

Todd Tyner is principal of the Mound Magnet for Science & Global Citizenship in Ventura, CA.

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