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An educator shares tips and strategies to create a STEM-focused school to help students build STEM skills for career and life.

3 best practices to create a STEM-focused school


An educator shares tips and strategies to help students build STEM skills for career and life

Key points:

The benefits of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education are numerous, and one would be hard-pressed to find a school district that doesn’t have a project, initiative, class, or lesson with the acronym in its title.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2021, there were nearly 10 million workers in STEM occupations–a total projected to grow by almost 11 percent by 2031. This figure represents a growth rate twice as fast as non-STEM occupations.

The department also noted that STEM jobs often pay substantially more than jobs in other fields. Even if a student doesn’t select a career in STEM, the soft skills they will learn at a STEM-focused school (critical thinking, teamwork, problem-solving and more) will serve them well in whatever they choose to do in life.

At Chesapeake Lighthouse Foundation, a Maryland-based Public Charter Organization, we took STEM instruction to the next level by making it the central focus of all of our schools. We are a STEM-based charter school network serving more than 3,900 students in grades K-12 at seven different campuses. STEM isn’t just something we teach; it’s interwoven in the work we do inside and outside of the schoolhouse. This can be a challenging thing to do well, but the benefits of doing so are enormous.

About our schools

Families tend to seek out charter schools because they are unhappy with their traditional public school, or they are looking for the specific niche/specialty program that the charter school offers. At Chesapeake Lighthouse Foundation, our STEM model sets us apart from other traditional school districts. Our vision statement is, “We inspire students to become STEM innovators and responsible global citizens.”

With the belief that STEM skills are best acquired starting at a young age, we start building foundational skills early in elementary school. Students are better equipped to think logically, communicate effectively, and to be scientifically and mathematically literate. Starting at age 5, we offer coding, robotics, virtual reality, STEM-related clubs, and competitive team opportunities. We utilize hands-on, innovative STEM curriculum to bring learning to life. One of our schools provides advanced math and computer courses for various IT certifications, while another has a dual enrollment program that allows high school students to graduate with an associate degree and a high school diploma.

We believe that the more exposure students have to modern technologies, the more likely they are to be interested in it. This in turn sparks passion. Thus, we incorporate graphic arts, engineering, data analysis, and technology into all of our non-STEM courses. In addition to the STEM focus, we also emphasize our relationships with our families and our community through home visits and inviting families to events at our schools. We value the home-school connection and believe it to be an essential component to the overall success of our school communities.

Best practices for a running a successful STEM school

Running a STEM-focused school can have its challenges. You must have enough teachers, the right technology, and lessons that infuse STEM into all classes including history and English/language arts, just to name a few. Here are some ways to set your STEM-focused school up for success.

  1. Forge community partnerships. Partnering with STEM-related businesses and organizations in the community is a great way to bolster a school’s STEM programming with additional resources, expertise, and even equipment. For us, being located in Maryland has the benefit of being situated near so many local technology, IT, and science research companies. There is also no shortage of national-level STEM organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Smithsonian Network, just to name a few. These many community partners help our schools in a multitude of ways. We invite people who work in STEM fields to volunteer at our schools. For instance, they can share information about their area of expertise, be an advisor for students on presentations or projects, or judge robotics competitions and/or science fairs. There are also opportunities for job shadowing or interning at these companies. Some partners may support your school and/or the student STEM clubs by providing resources like lab equipment or robotics kits. Don’t overlook the value in partnering with educational institutions as well. We partner with our local community college to provide a pathway for our students to complete high school while simultaneously earning their associates’ degree in IT. We also partner with Project Lead the Way on projects that engage students in interdisciplinary activities such as working with a client to design a home, programming electronic devices like robotic arms, or exploring algae as a biofuel source. Partnerships are a powerful way to support programming.

  2. Infuse STEM into all subject areas. It’s not too difficult to think of ways to create engaging STEM learning in a chemistry or computer class. But what about when you’re teaching English or social studies? We’ve found that incorporating virtual reality technology is a great way to make STEM accessible and engaging across the curriculum. We use ClassVR from Avantis Education to infuse technology into lessons and also help students delve more deeply into subject matter. For instance, instead of having students watch a movie to supplement a lesson about the play Romeo and Juliet, an English teacher can use the ClassVR headsets and lessons to have students virtually walk around in a scene from the play. A history teacher can take their students to virtually explore a battlefield, versus simply having them read accounts and examine photos. To take it a step further, students could design a 3D virtual scene themselves and upload it to their VR headset. Outside of the VR integration into non-stem subjects we strongly recommend making use of the engineering and design process. We encourage our schools to utilize a variety of collaborative planning models (interdisciplinary, vertical teaming, etc.) to summarize unit projects that are hands-on, follow the engineering and design process, and showcase mastery of content. An example of this could be students in a history course who have just learned about the Cold War having to design a spy device that could be used on the front lines to assist either side of the conflict. Students would need to apply their knowledge of the events of the conflict to determine which type of device to create and why it would help their respective party. As educators, we know that hands-on learning is essential for engagement and retention of information. What better way to support hands-on learning than by infusing STEM into all subject areas?

  3. Extend STEM learning. Offering activities that extend STEM learning outside of the classroom is a great way to help students practice the skills they’re learning and also provides fun social experiences. The Chesapeake Lighthouse Foundation hosts exhibitions and science fairs where students showcase their projects. We also offer summer STEM camps, after school clubs and Saturday activities. STEM-related extracurricular activities can take student engagement to the next level and also provide opportunities for students to continue to build and apply their STEM knowledge outside of the school day. All the while, they are also practicing life skills such as teamwork, leadership, and public speaking.

When students have a solid foundation in STEM education, opportunities are abundant. STEM schools are often in high demand for this reason. For those charged with leading a STEM-focused school, the aforementioned practices can help set your school – and students – up for success.

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