STEM academy nurtures early interest in math and science

Two children hold balls on sticks representing planets and cross arms to indicate the way they revolve.
Understanding the earth’s rotation around the sun is reinforced via hands-on learning. Photo: Rick Smith

Editor’s Note: In September 2013, the Flint Community Schools opened a STEM academy, designed to recruit and retain district students, encourage interest in math and science, and prepare children for the 21st century workforce. This article is the first of a series of occasional articles on the school, its progress and the lessons learned by teachers and administrators as they attempt to integrate science, technology, engineering and math throughout the school curriculum.

Only two years ago, establishing an elementary school focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) was just an idea on paper — the result of a brainstorming session by a diverse group of local educators, including Larry Watson, interim superintendent of Flint Community Schools.

“A STEM academy was something we just kept working on,” said Shamarion Grace, acting executive director of the Office of Curriculum & Instruction in Flint. The idea of such a specialized school finally gained traction when the Flint Board of Education — as part of a larger effort to recruit and retain students — approved the conversion of adjacent elementary and middle-school buildings to create a K-6 campus devoted to the sciences and math.

The Brownell-Holmes STEM Academy opened in September 2013 with 839 students. Most of the children live near the campus, but about 15% come from outside the neighborhood or school district. At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, the academy had retained those students and added a few more for a final headcount of 852 — a sign to teachers, staff and administrators that their hard work is making a difference for Flint children and their families.

“It was an outstanding year,” said Valeria Sheppard, principal for K-2 students housed in the Brownell building. “Our children were afforded experiences they didn’t have before.”

“Our first year was one of challenges and excitement,” added Anna Palmer Johnson, the STEM facilitator for the academy.

“Our students weren’t the only learners. We all were learners: staff, students and community partners. We became a stronger family as we worked through the first year of implementation. We are excited to see what next year brings.”

Across the country, school districts are exploring ways to increase their students’ exposure to STEM-related learning. Far from being a fad, attempts to improve STEM teaching in the United States date back to shortly after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth in 1957.

Educators today cite a number of reasons for emphasizing STEM-related skills, not the least of which is preparing students for careers in a 21st century workforce. Michigan alone projects a shortfall of nearly 274,000 STEM professionals by 2018.

But there are other compelling reasons for increasing students’ exposure to science and math, especially in the early elementary years.

“Part of our mission is to give students experiences that will arouse their desire to learn and begin to develop critical-thinking skills when they are very young,” Johnson said.

Brownell-Holmes STEM students wear headphones and work at their computers in a computer lab.
Early exposure to technology helps build student confidence. Photo: Rick Smith

As STEM facilitator, she is responsible for supporting school staff as they implement the new curriculum and for providing ongoing professional development and training.

Generally, efforts to improve the delivery of STEM-related subjects most often focus on high school, but it is early education “where you can lay a solid foundation for learning and tap into a child’s natural curiosity and desire to experiment,” Johnson says.

“We believe that children who enjoy learning, who have the opportunity to apply what they learn, will want to learn more. Our goal is controlled chaos. We want learning to be dynamic, not force-fed.”

And that, say Johnson and Grace, requires teachers who are comfortable with non-traditional teaching methods and confident in their ability to deliver learning in multiple ways.

“Our teachers and staff understand they are not taking a business-as-usual approach to instruction,” Grace said.

Her long-term goal is to infuse science, technology, engineering and math throughout the school’s curriculum and then use Brownell-Holmes as a district model.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation granted the Flint Board of Education $576,200 in September 2013 to help launch the academy. The grant supported the implementation of a new STEM-based curricula and enabled the district to coordinate teacher and staff professional development and acquire lab equipment, upgraded technology and additional supplies.

Ongoing professional development for staff has been particularly critical to the success of the school, Johnson says. According to a recent study by the Center for American Progress, inadequate preparation of elementary school teachers is a “blind spot” in the nation’s efforts to promote STEM learning.

At Brownell-Holmes, professional development training to increase staff capacity in all areas of STEM occurs monthly throughout the school year and summer. Classroom aides and other support personnel, as well as afterschool staff, are included in most of the in-house training.

Aware of the challenges the district faced in opening a two-building, K-6 STEM campus, two seasoned administrators agreed to serve as principals; Valeria Shepherd at Brownell and Grant Whitehead at Holmes, which houses the upper elementary students grades 3 through 6.

Whitehead, a former community school director and educator who is retiring this year, noted that in Flint, Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) scores are alarmingly low and mobility rates alarmingly high. And approximately 8 out of 10 students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Two smiling girls sit at a table while working on a science experiment.
It may look like play, but experiments with force and motion build understanding of elementary physics. Photo: Gavin Clabaugh

To boost the effectiveness of the academy and draw in parents as partners, both principals were dedicated to creating a “community school” atmosphere in their buildings.

“We want Brownell-Holmes to be a welcoming place for children, their mothers and their fathers. Each school has a parent facilitator,” Grace said.

“We’re also determined to reach out to local universities and businesses so we can partner with them to host family-friendly activities.”

In 2014-15, the academy will be the designated pilot site for the implementation of a new model for community education, a model that eventually will be replicated across the Flint district.

“We have lots of ideas — a butterfly garden, a greenhouse — we’ll need the help of our parents, neighbors and community organizations to help us achieve those dreams,” said Grace.

“In addition to tracking academic progress, gains in areas such as increased confidence and positive attitudes toward learning also will be measured,” Johnson says.

“We are a STEM academy, but our principals are well aware that to make gains in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, children must have a solid foundation in reading and writing. We also offer music and physical education — because we want to provide our children with as many pathways to learning and success as possible.”