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STEM From Scratch

What you can learn from one Colorado district’s innovative STEM program.

Bill Gilmore understands the importance of STEM learning. A former environmental manager of the United States Antarctic Program, Gilmore knows that “if you’ve got a problem, [often] you’ve got to solve it with what you’ve got on hand. You work to solve it given the combined intelligence of your team and what you’ve got.”

Gilmore, STEM coordinator for Englewood Schools in Colorado, is working to instill that kind of collaborative, solutions-driven thinking in the district’s 3,000 students. Located on the outskirts of Denver, the district is transforming education with the help of a $58,000 Race to the Top (RTT) grant and a commitment to a curriculum rich in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The STEM emphasis is a drastic departure from the old way of doing things in Englewood. Not long ago, the district’s technical offerings were limited to woodshop and small-engine repair. Science and math classes were taught in isolation.

“When I came here four years ago,” says Brian Ewert, Englewood’s superintendent, “there was nothing, career- or technical-education-wise, that was really forward thinking. We spent time talking with our community and our students about what kind of programs we needed to have to help students prepare for college, for a career, for the workforce.”

Those conversations, Ewert says, occurred parallel to the national emergence of interest in STEM education. Industry leaders were practically begging for employees with a solid understanding of science, math, and engineering principles. Demand for technically adept employees, in fact, is one reason RTT emphasizes STEM education.

Now, Englewood has state-of-the-art STEM labs and courses that include industry-grade tools. Teachers weave science, technology, engineering, and math throughout the curriculum. The district’s fabrication lab is nearly completed, educators regularly consult with business leaders, and Englewood students are creating award-winning projects. Here is a look at the hurdles Englewood faced building its STEM program from scratch—and the solutions devised along the way.

Problem 1: Lack of Community Support
At first, the Englewood Community didn’t see the need for STEM education. "I was a little naive," Ewert says. "I thought the mere mention of STEM and high-tech labs would be exciting. But some community members said, 'How dare you get rid of our small-engine repair shop that we’ve had for 30 years?'"

Solution: Over the course of two years, administrators held eight town hall meetings to discuss the community’s educational needs and goals. Fortunately, a nucleus of parents and businesspeople intuitively understood the need for a 21st-century education. “They said, ‘There are no jobs in small-engine repair. People throw their lawn mowers away and go buy new ones,’” Ewert recalls.

The slow but steady approach paid off. In 2011, Englewood Schools passed a $1.5 million mill levy and $50 million bond, allowing the district to develop STEM and technical-education programming, as well as brand-new learning labs.

Problem 2: Lack of Qualified Teachers
 “The pool of stem teachers is very, very shallow,” Ewert says. “It’s a huge challenge to find someone who has both an engineering, mathematics, or science background and the ability to connect with kids.” Also, qualified professionals may not be willing to work for public-school wages.

Solution: Englewood built up its internal capability. The bulk of the RTT funds, which the district received in the 2012–13 school year, have gone toward professional development. They send teachers to conferences and onsite visits to see what’s happening with programs, says Diana Zakhem, Englewood Schools’ director of postsecondary and workforce readiness. “We’re partnered with Arapahoe Community College. Our faculties talked about academic readiness and what it means to have kids ready for postsecondary education in STEM fields.”

A portion of the RTT money was used to hire Gilmore as district STEM coordinator. (Right now, it’s a half-time position; Gilmore also teaches STEM classes.) In addition to providing STEM coaching, Gilmore facilitates an advisory committee of industry leaders who offer insights, materials, and technical assistance; the committee includes members from Lockheed Martin, the United States Geological Survey, and local industries.

Gilmore also secured a $3,000 Colorado Department of Education grant. It allowed staff members to collaborate on the design of an interdisciplinary, multilevel unit of study focused on the South Platte River, which winds through Denver. “We’ve now got an awesome STEM unit study with 13 different learning experiences for students, and teachers willing to teach it,” Gilmore says.

Problem 3: Getting a STEM Program Off the Ground
Building a program from the ground up takes time, and Englewood administrators knew they didn’t have any to waste.

“Our goal was to introduce a lot of innovation as quickly as possible, because kids are moving through our system, and what they were experiencing was antiquated,” says Jonathan Fore, principal of Englewood High School.

Solution: Englewood used the bond and mill money to purchase a turnkey STEM program from Creative Learning Systems. “They provided all of the hardware, furniture, software, programming, curriculum, and professional development,” Ewert says. “It was expensive [the two SmartLabs cost approxi­mately $45,000 each] but well worth it.”

The SmartLabs contain industry-grade equipment, collaborative learning spaces, and preloaded curriculum to guide students through STEM activities.

As of January 2014, all middle and high school students have access to STEM labs. The district offers both an introductory STEM survey course, which exposes students to computer science, animation, energy basics, and robotics, and an advanced STEM course, which allows students to pursue STEM projects of their own interest.

Problem 4: Keeping a Program Going
Administrators are keeping a close eye on the sustainability of the STEM program. “Kids outgrow the preloaded activities really fast,” Gilmore says.

Solution: Englewood’s next step is to open its fabrication lab in spring 2015. It will include 3D scanners, metal-fabricating equipment, plasma cutters, welding machines, and other tools.

Englewood administrators and teachers weave STEM concepts throughout the curriculum. The South Platte River unit is one example. Math teachers are also exploring new approaches to math after visiting a school where students learn geometry while building a house for Habitat for Humanity.

To keep costs in check, Englewood has implemented a $20 student fee for STEM at the high school; it will help pay for consumables, upgrades, and replacements. At the same time, Gilmore is developing industry partnerships, helping businesses understand the value of the district’s STEM program.

“Obviously, you can’t sustain a STEM program on one or two or even three grants,” Gilmore says. “Industry is not unwilling to spend money to help us, but they need to understand what their return on investment is going to be. Educators don’t usually get that. They just say, ‘We need money.’ Our program is working to bridge the gap between education and industry."

****

STEM Jobs: The Numbers
16% of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in STEM careers.

Experts project an increase in STEM jobs from 2010 to 2020:
62% biomedical engineers
36% medical scientists
32% software developers 

Source: U.S. Department of Education 

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