The Learning Tree
or the third year, students at Owatonna’s McKinley Elementary School have been approaching learning in a nontraditional way through the STEM program.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and the goal is to better prepare students for an increasingly complex and technological society. The program aims to make students better learners through the use of collaboration, skills and problem solving.
After the development of a task force, a series of surveys to parents and teachers and multiple school visits, McKinley decided that STEM was the right program and implemented it in fall 2012.
McKinley is the only school in the district to have implemented the program throughout the entire building, although both Willow Creek Intermediate School and Owatonna Junior High School use it to some degree, with some teachers using ESTEM — an environmentally focused instruction, and others using traditional instruction.
“Many schools will have a STEM teacher that students will go to and they will get STEM teaching one day a week. Our philosophy is that it is happening all day, in every room, with all students,” said District-wide STEM Coordinator Tom Meagher.
Bob Olson, director of facilities and infrastructure and former principal, added, “A lot of schools focus so heavily on the four letters that they forget about the reading, and we really focused on making sure our reading is still solid and infuse the STEM thinking into reading, social studies and into all the different subject areas.”
Since the program’s inception, the focus has shifted from teaching the four subjects to a way of teaching all subjects.
“Originally, STEM was identified as making sure to teach the four content areas, but it has really grown beyond that. Teachers aren’t expected to just teach their science, technology, engineering and math,” Meagher said. “The idea is, ‘How do we integrate the content areas that we are teaching?’ and that way we can make sure that they are dovetailed together, so that way, when students are learning, they are seeing the purpose of reading, writing, calculating and data analysis because it is all related to the particular subject they are studying.”
When the program began, there was also a stigma that it was only for high income or gifted and talented students.
“When we first started STEM, I had a lot of parents say, ‘I don’t think this is for my kid,’ and there was also this thought out there that STEM is only for kids at the higher end of the spectrum, and that can’t be any farther from the truth,” Olson said. “STEM thinking, learning and instructing is for every teacher and for every student, whether they are low income, English language learners or in the gifted and talented program.”
For McKinley faculty members, STEM has become second nature and every staff member believes that STEM is vital to student learning, say administrators.
“It is real life. It is really what is happening and the way our society and culture works. Kids really see the value, purpose and real meaning of what they learn and are doing in class,” Meagher said.
One example of STEM instruction is in spring, when second-graders do their claymation project. Students learn the plant life cycle by building each stage out of clay and then turning what they have made into an animation through an iPad application.
Another example is when fourth-graders explore the states of matter through art, math and science by repurposing plastic recyclable cups.
“We teach them the science and materials of plastic, they read the numbers on the bottom and learn about how to recycle, and then they go to art class and decorate the cups, and they learn the states of matter by putting them in a toaster oven to change them in to liquid form and repurpose the plastic into ornaments,” Meagher said.
The program brings challenges, including a constant need for funding for a vast amount of required resources and instructional times longer than traditional times.
“STEM teaching takes longer. It is not like you can just run a worksheet and give a lesson in 25 minutes. It doesn’t work that way,” Meagher said.
Despite the challenges, the program remains a success for the school.
“The culture of this building is unbelievable. We would not be successful if our teachers did not work together. To be a STEM school, you need buy-in from everybody in the building, and if you don’t have that, you can only go so far,” Olson said.
Another reason the program has been so successful is that teachers are concerned about the whole student body, instead of students in their classroom.
“In the past, you would walk down the hallways of all schools, not just here, and you would hear teachers making excuses as to why kids aren’t at the levels they are at, and in this building, we don’t have that now. They are trying to find solutions instead of making excuses,” Olson said.
To keep both parents and students invested in the curriculum, McKinley typically holds three to four STEM nights a year, with each exploring a different topic. Students, their families and experts in the field are invited to participate in the night’s activities.
The next STEM night will be on Thursday, Feb. 5, and the focus will be reading.