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Boston STEM Week

Why one district’s students studied only STEM for a week

Boston asked middle school students to focus just on STEM learning for an entire week—and it paid off

For one week in October, students in Boston’s public middle schools—6,500 students in 36 schools–set aside their regular lessons and participated in Boston STEM Week, a hands-on, in-depth program connecting students with real-world examples of STEM in action.

Organized by i2 Learning during October 3-7, Boston STEM Week grew out of a STEM-focused summer camp that took place for one week on empty school campuses. Organizations such as MIT, the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Science in Boston contributed hands-on STEM courses for students.

In 2015, teachers working at the camps observed a high level of student engagement, but noted one drawback: the STEM camps only attracted students who were already interested in the topic. They wondered if expanding it to public school classrooms could engage students who hadn’t otherwise expressed an interest in STEM.

The district-wide program was first piloted in one Boston school, followed by a pilot in 15 charter and parochial schools, funded by Boston-based organizations.

To prepare, middle school teachers attended summer professional development in the form of a two-day workshop focused on hands-on learning with the STEM curriculum they planned to use.

“Our goal is to reach kids who might have ignored STEM otherwise,” said i2 Learning founder Ethan Berman. “[STEM is] where our world is going. I think so many kids just don’t have exposure, and we’re trying to get it to them early. They don’t necessarily know what real-world math and science are. Even beyond STEM as a subject area, learning to build with their hands, using creativity, being allowed to fail, and building collaboration skills are valuable for today’s students.”

i2 Learning reached out to foundations and philanthropic groups for support as it moved to scale across the city’s middle schools. “We needed all of these partners to make something like Boston STEM Week happen at that scale,” he said.

Next page: How teachers prepared for the week-long event; how students responded

Each school chose a week-long course for each of its middle school grades. The courses came with professional development kits, and training facilitators helped teachers set up their classrooms and prepare for STEM Week the Friday before it began.

Part of the program’s success lies in its organization and its respect for teachers, said Sara Zrike, lead teacher at the bilingual Hurley K-8 School. Zrike was i2 Learning’s building point person during STEM Week and supported colleagues in their surgical techniques course instruction.

“From its inception, the program was very well-organized. The actual event was amazing,” she said. “As teachers, we felt incredibly respected as professionals and as learners throughout the summer training. It was so nice, from the inception, to get direction and support throughout.”

“I really relied on my team more than ever before for the curriculum,” said Ellen Latham, an eighth grade algebra teacher at the Mario Umana School in East Boston. Latham taught the urban farming course during the week.

“We convened every morning to go over learning objectives, and it really felt good to rely on people and be there for one another. It was a great team-building experience for the faculty, as well as for the kids,” she said.

Student engagement

Zrike met with teachers to go over surgical techniques course content and objectives and taught portions of the course to eighth grade students. The content was so new to students, and their interest was evident, she said.

“It was an intense week, but what was incredible was that the kids were so engaged,” Zrike said. “Each day, the level of enthusiasm was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And it wasn’t just the science piece—it was the idea of collaboration and doing things in teams. My middle school teachers were very, very excited about it,” Zrike said.

“It’s such a revolutionary idea, and students learned about things they otherwise might not have connected to,” she said. “It was great to interact with the kids in a way that wasn’t really assessment-based.”

“The program was really well-designed. I wasn’t too knowledgeable about farming and urban farming, and I think we all learned together,” Latham said. “I think that made the kids really comfortable—to know their teacher wasn’t an expert.”

Latham has taught for 15 years, and 13 of those years have been in the Boston Public Schools. She said this program was a game-changer, both in its structure and its impact on students.

“I’ve never seen a program like this, where your classes for the entire week are canceled and students stay with the same teacher to investigate something that won’t be on their exams. It’s highly unusual to see in a public school,” she acknowledged.

“I have 30 students in my class, and that week I didn’t have a single absence or any tardy students,” she said.

Students in the urban area don’t have a lot, if any, backyard space, and the urban farming program taught them the possibilities of growing their own food, forming community gardens, and contributing to their community, Latham added.

For example, one project challenged students to make beehives. The class heard from an East Boston resident who keeps a beehive on his back porch, and he brought samples of the honey for students. They also built terrariums, learned where their food comes from, and found a community garden and made arrangements for the students to visit it. Many students became enthusiastic about starting small gardens and growing plants on their porches or in small outdoor areas.

“Our kids are smart and they want to be healthy. The program included videos on how kids in many urban settings rely on fast food, and we talked about the impact on community health and obesity rates in urban settings,” Latham said. “For them to be handed the tools for an alternative lifestyle—I think they’ll take advantage of what they learned.”

STEM Week was provided at no cost to the Boston Public School system through the support of i2 Learning, MathWorks, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Lynch Foundation, Boston Foundation and other corporate and foundation sponsors.

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