Spotlight on a STEM School

By Meredith Barnett
Principal, November/December 2012

First-graders at the Richfield STEM School are responsible for the same subjects as their peers at other Minnesota schools. But one thing’s different—they’re also in charge of worms and soil.

“For first graders, their year-long project is compost,” says Joey Page, principal of the K-5 program, the only one in the district focused on STEM. For the first six weeks of school, each of Richfield STEM School’s 800-plus students raises Monarch butterflies. Then, each grade launches into other year-long projects, like composting.

“That’s what I tell them: They’re in charge of dirt,” says Page. “At the end of the year, they have to give some dirt to the fifth graders for their terrariums and to the kin­dergarteners for their gardens.”

Amidst a national backdrop of calls for enriching STEM educa­tion and preparing students for high-demand technical careers, Richfield offers students oppor­tunities to get their hands dirty— sometimes literally—with project-based math and science learning. But as an intensive STEM school, Richfield takes this goal a step further, intentionally embedding science, technology, engineering, and math into every subject.

To achieve its mission of engaging students in “authentic, real-world, expeditionary learning,” the school has developed its own inquiry-based, interdisciplinary curriculum that is deeper in science and engineering than district standards. Page, who came on board at the school in 2009 to help it transition to its STEM emphasis in 2010, says school staff spent a lot of time looking at other STEM schools, devising a curriculum that is both organic and place-centric.

“We have a beautiful courtyard garden and a nature preserve nearby. Our STEM curriculum leans more toward environmental engineer­ing,” he says. Fourth graders dip into chemical engineering when they test local water’s pH, for instance; fifth graders explore civil engineering by designing dams with the Science Museum of Minnesota. And other subjects lend themselves perfectly to STEM, Page says. Fourth graders can read about Duke Ellington in language arts, explore how a horn makes sound, and see how math and music intertwine to form quarter-notes and eighth-notes.

“One question we’re always ask­ing is, ‘Where is STEM?’” says Page. “We make sure we’re pulling it in intentionally.”

Preparing teachers to weave STEM into the curriculum has been a big part of Richfield’s success. When the school opened, teachers had to earn elementary STEM certification within two years.

“As a principal, I wanted to have a deep staff development plan. Our teachers had zero experience in engi­neering because it’s not part of any elementary program,” he says.

The school partnered with the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University to usher two cohorts of educators through the year-long certification program, which gave teachers the opportunity to bond and boost their confidence in teaching STEM. After working throughout the year on coursework with videos, blogs, and meetings on staff development days, teachers hosted an engineering fair to present their culminating projects to students, filling the Richfield gym with Rube Goldberg machines.

“One of the most powerful things of the last two years has been show­ing our students that their teachers are learners too,” says Page.

As teachers and students have delved into STEM together, the school has honed its curriculum, teamed with The Works Museum to construct the W.O.W. Room (an interactive, hands-on “gym” for stretching sci­ence “muscles”), and discovered ways to redefine technology.

“The ‘stuff’ doesn’t make the STEM school,” says Page of the SMART Boards, computer labs, and digital tools that are already present in plenty of schools in his district. “It’s not just stuff we plug in. It’s a tool, and we can make technology.”

The W.O.W. Room features sta­tions for computer programming, for instance. First graders make flash­lights, while fifth graders build cata­pults. But what Richfield’s students create isn’t necessarily as important as how they do it. Hands-on projects like these offer play with a purpose, leveraging fun to lay foundational skills—collaboration, logic, innova­tion, and most of all, critical thinking.

“STEM fits very well into the natu­ral curiosity that kids have,” Page says. STEM schools aren’t necessarily on a mission to create a generation of NASA scientists or top engineers, just curious problem-solvers who can make an impact on their world.

“We want kids to understand how the world works,” he says. “We also want kids to understand how to make it better. I think that encom­passes what STEM is.”

Meredith Barnett
Associate Editor, NAESP


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