Developing STEM Inside Every School

In a previous role, I had the unique opportunity to develop a STEM-focused school. As a part of the planning process, I deeply contemplated what a STEM school would look like and what it could really become. The image of this school was forming around ‘ideas and materials’ such as existing classrooms, furniture, instructional framework, teacher certifications, books, and ‘mental models’. Mental models are essentially the explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. This became a major influence in every decision we made in planning a complete STEM curriculum. What I realized was that the opportunity to open a STEM­focused school had a starting point in common to any change process; the existing mental models. In this the quest to become STEM, it became clear how important it is to begin with ‘why and how’ when dealing with existing mental models.

STEM ‘what’ and STEM ‘how’

Despite our intention of starting with ‘why and how,’ early in the planning, ‘what’ questions dominated every interaction. What courses, curriculum, what certifications, what students, what teachers, and even ‘what is STEM?’ These ‘what’ questions were symbolic of the people in our system recognizing change was occurring, and their comfort was driven by a desire for answers. Also, the ‘what’ questions were also symbolic of how people were associated to the redesign of a school.

It was deep inside these questions, driven by existing mental models, that to make a STEM school we needed ‘STEM’ stuff. Once we slowed down the conversation, we took a different approach and began with ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. The first of which was a need for understanding: ‘Why’ is a STEM education unique? A STEM ‘what’ response is focused on the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. While these are crucial in every student’s educational plan, these are topics and curriculum pieces that are central aspects of global education. But beyond ‘what’, the STEM philosophy, or ‘how’, is a much deeper experience for the learner, and as a result, we define STEM Education as Strategies That Engage Minds.

The Waukesha STEM Academy

The planning took place in the fall of 2010, and the doors opened to The Waukesha STEM Academy a school that was designed around a simple concept; infuse STEM everywhere. The infusion of STEM (‘how’) was possible because it was a series of Strategies That Engaged Minds that guided this development rather than a set of rules, adoptions, and requirements.

The leader’s work was about crafting a vision for the future, while at the same time becoming deeply aware of the existing mental models. The vision to foster students’ understanding that they are in control of their education and to create a sense of ownership in their success, was masked by a need for ‘what’ questions. When looking to take the next steps to redefine the learner’s experience, it is critical to shift the thinking to ‘why and how’ questions. Leadership actions are in direct alignment to the opportunities to which that leader can see.

Today, as this STEM-focused school enters its sixth year, it is the ‘strategies’ that continue to guide its evolution. Students at the Waukesha STEM Academy are entering a world of exploration, inquiry-based learning, and the hands-on creation of new ideas. The days of a teacher being “the sage on the stage” are long gone and are just not effective in preparing our young learners for the jobs of tomorrow.

The staff at the Waukesha STEM Academy serves as ‘partners in learning’ with each student. Working together, they foster learning with strategies designed for the learner to drive the experience. For the learner, the results are not only rich learning experiences but the development of a ‘learner’s identity’ that fuels future steps for learning. Open learning experiences may include everything from designing, drafting and creating motorcycle handlebars, to devising an alternative energy source for the cities of the future, to brainstorming marketing ideas for learner-created products, the students are constantly being challenged to solve the problems of the world and collaboratively create solutions.

Every lesson, class, and school…a STEM school.

Despite our extensive planning and explicit intentions, we did not truly become a STEM school until the day we connected to the fact that we had to infuse Strategies That Engage Minds into our instructional decision making each and every day. It is a daily choice that teachers across the world make and one that is driven by the existing mental models encapsulating school, teaching, and…STEM! Today, it is important for all learners to experience learning as though they are the scientist, engineer, problem solver, artist, collaborator, and leader. This is the development of the learner’s’ identity and ultimately the discovery of a STEM school inside of every school.

The next time you walk into a classroom, ask yourself “is this STEM?” Or in other words, “do these strategies engage minds?”


By Ryan Krohn, Asst. Superintendent, Waukesha School District (WI)

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