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A school’s transition to become a state STEM school of distinction

Five years ago, when Weatherstone Elementary became a Wake County STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) school, STEM Coordinator Jen Zoller, Principal Tim Chadwick, and the entire staff were focused. 

Instead of centering their strategy around technology or the STEM professionals themselves, teachers were encouraged to start with problem- or project-based learning. Everything else, Zoller said, would fit into that priority. 

“You’re going to have different professionals come in based on what you’re teaching in your curriculum,” Zoller said. “And then, you’re going to use technology that relates to whatever project you’re using. Everything gets infused into the project-based learning.”

This consistent goal is a large part of why Zoller and Chadwick said their work in creating an environment with STEM at the center has been successful. The State Board of Education, at the beginning of June, recognized Weatherstone Elementary as one of three state STEM Schools of Distinction for the 2016-17 school year.

Only one other school, Hilburn Academy, received the highest level of achievement — a “model” status. Hendersonville Elementary was also recognized as a “prepared” STEM school of distinction. 

At Weatherstone, they began small and slow. Zoller said it was the same year Common Core and Power Schools were introduced. Teachers taught, at most, one STEM unit each quarter.

“We started with a foundation that wasn’t overwhelming to the teachers,” she said.

Then, as teachers latched on, they taught more and more project-based units. 

“We have just been building and layering upon everything we’ve done,” Zoller said. 

Chadwick said they also wanted to make sure their approach was integrated instead of thematic. He said that is a change that is still happening, with some teachers and some grades spilling over with ideas, and others needing a nudge. 

“So if they were studying human body systems, they might have found a math worksheet that had bones on it that would fit into it — but it might not have anything to do with human bodies,” Chadwick said. “Now… if it is something that we’re studying, it really relates and is tied directly to the curriculum.”

This year, a math class at Weatherstone studied area and perimeter. Some parents had an idea to start a garden. Staff saw an opportunity to combine the two. An architect came into the classroom and gave students a challenge to design the garden using computer software. 

Students took measurements, calculated the area and perimeter of individual boxes that made up the space, created a model, and presented their ideas in a team. Each class decided which plan was best, and those teams then presented to the garden club. The architect used elements of what they picked in the creation of the school’s garden.

“We’re solving a problem that’s not just on paper,” Zoller said. “You’re solving a problem that’s actually going to become something, which is pretty cool.”

Often, Chadwick said students are using STEM not as the end, but as the means to another end. He said they have seen greater engagement and higher achievement when students use STEM as a tool to access meaningful instruction.

For example, fourth-graders recently used the video game Minecraft to create virtual museums that display the terms and concepts they were learning in science. Students were reviewing their science curriculum and learning a bit of computer coding along the way. 

“You can get all the great computers or iPads in the world, but if you don’t have a great rollout or a plan for using those materials, then you’re just amplifying the bad instruction that’s already taking place in the classroom,” Chadwick said.

As far as community involvement goes, Zoller and Chadwick have run into some road blocks.

They said they found that many professionals are willing to come to schools, but they are mainly interested in interacting with middle and high school students.

“There’s very few businesses out there that are targeting children, little ones, K-5,” Chadwick said.

He said it seems individuals in STEM fields find it harder to relate high-level ideas to young children.

“How does my physics, engineering, how does my chemistry background, how do I equate that down to (little kids)?” Chadwick said. 

He said they are still struggling in that area, but they have reached out to parents with STEM-related careers and invited them into the school since they already know how to relate to their own children. They had a STEM career day to expose kids to different STEM options and to make the adults more comfortable with the idea of connecting their industries to elementary minds. 

Another next priority, Chadwick said, is to get teachers out of the classroom. 

“We’re all in education, so all we know for our entire lives as teachers and educators, is the four walls of the classroom,” he said. 

Their goal is to create opportunities for teachers to have experiences in STEM industries so they can translate them back to the classroom. They sent teachers to SummerSTEM, a program sponsored by the WakeEd Partnership, Wake County Public Schools, and businesses in the area, where teachers create project-based units around their hands-on experiences in different settings. 

About a third of Weatherstone’s students fall below the poverty line. Their population, Chadwick said, comes from a diverse set of backgrounds. As they built their STEM school, they have been intentional in making the curriculum inclusive to all students.

Chadwick said Weatherstone recently started a bring-your-own-device initiative, encouraging students to bring iPads or computers from home if they have them. He said many have questioned how the strategy is equitable and fair to low-income students. But, he said, since Weatherstone is not a 1:1 school, students bringing in devices from home frees up the school-owned devices so that all students have access.

“It makes a really good problem for us to have to work through,” Chadwick said. 

Projects have, historically, received higher grades when parents have time and resources to help. Zoller said they tried to emphasize that project-based learning means it happens at school instead of at home. And if there are take-home projects, they usually are not graded and require accessible materials that teachers can give students if they do not have them at home — an ice cub, a paper plate, or a newspaper. 

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in class,” Zoller said. 

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.