The partners who united to create the school’s innovative curriculum began with a blank page. Through their combined experiences, expertise and vision, they created both a new, powerful framework for learning and a series of curriculum units that will prepare students unlike any other school in the world.
1) The Foundation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
Vision: The STEM partnership school will prepare the community's talented young learners in ways that will ignite their interest in mathematics and science. Equally important is the opportunity to develop the school as a center for teacher preparation, faculty development and educational research.
Mission: To collaboratively develop students’ interests and aptitudes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to prepare them for further education and careers in those fields.
Legal authority: Illinois School Code 105 ILCS 5/10-22.22e, enacted specifically in support of the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School concept, established legal provisions for contiguous public school districts to operate jointly, with an institution of higher education located in the municipality, a science and mathematics partnership school.
2) The Framework of a Dynamic New Curriculum
STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A “STEM education” has become synonymous with a curriculum that focuses on these disciplines. STEM transcends curriculum design. It is about policy and our country’s push to make these disciplines more engrained in our educational institutions in order to support the growing need for highly trained professionals in the fields involving these areas. At the STEM School, teachers have worked with professors from Aurora University and professionals from our business partners and nonprofit organizations to design a curriculum focused on these disciplines that develop skills desirable in the 21st century workplace.
Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)
The NGSS are the core of the curriculum. Released in 2013, the NGSS were developed by a consortium comprised of the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Research Council, and the nonprofit organization Achieve. The Standards were also reviewed by the public prior to release. Since scientific method uses a defined process for exploration and hypothesis testing, science is a natural choice to anchor an integrated curriculum that involves problem-based learning. It aligns with the process of discovery used in a STEM curriculum and emphasizes performance expectations rather than knowledge acquisition. The NGSS are based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education developed by the National Research Council. The NGSS embeds three constructs at all grade levels: 1) disciplinary core ideas, 2) science and engineering practices and 3) cross-cutting concepts. These elements are woven into every performance expectation.
Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
Since 2010, CCSS have been used in Illinois for mathematics and literacy. At the STEM School, the CCSS were overlaid onto the NGSS and connections were made that combined subjects while maintaining the integrity of the standards. The focus of CCSS is developing skills and applying knowledge to real-world situations aligning with the constructs of the STEM curriculum.
The curriculum includes six units used by all grades differing in sophistication based on the level. The units are: 1) matter and energy, 2) forces and motion, 3) structure and functions of organisms, 4) ecosystems and adaptations, 5) geology and space, and 6) weather, climate and human impact.
An Integrated Curriculum
The goal of an integrated curriculum is to replicate the learning of skills in the same manner they are used in the real world. Workers typically do not isolate the disciplines they learned in school when completing a task. Instead, they are applied seamlessly and without thought to the actual skill set or discipline from which they were derived. Integrating a curriculum involves unifying topics from disparate subjects into a comprehensive learning experience in order to gain a holistic perspective and deeper understanding.
3) The Spirit of Innovative Instruction
Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” It is natural for people to solve problems. We seek solutions for those things we do not know or understand. Our pedagogy involves posing a problem that students tear apart or reverse engineer in order to examine the components and search for possible causes to the problem. They then generate ideas, brainstorm solutions and test hypotheses to see what works and what does not. Students work individually and in teams developing skills needed to solve the problem. They try and fail and try again until they find a solution.
Like problem-based learning, essential questions drive the process of discovery. Instead of telling students what is, we ask them what could be based on what they know or can work to find out. Students develop responses to essential questions that they support with facts, figures, theories, formulas and other methods much like an attorney would prove a case at trial. Students learn how to own their answers and present them to others for consideration and critique. This approach to creating and defending an argument will prepare students for PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), the new state of Illinois standardized assessment.
Innovator Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” When students are allowed to get their hands dirty and struggle to figure out solutions to problems (as opposed to being told the answers), the learning will be more meaningful. We will explore and ask questions and visit places that will stimulate curiosity, which drives the continuation of the dialogue about the world around us.
Technology is a means to an end. It is embedded in the work students do in class and at home. They learn new applications that can assist them in developing their thoughts and theories. All students at the STEM School are issued a Google Chrome Book. They use their computers to access the materials they use to develop skills and manipulate their ideas. They conduct experiments using probes and instruments to measure. They play on interactive displays provided by the business partners. They grow plants in the rooftop greenhouse. They use the Smart Board to present their ideas. They use their personal devices to record and broadcast their accomplishments.
While design cycles may vary in their detail, most include five basic elements: investigate, design, plan, create and evaluate. These elements represent the steps we teach at the STEM School when students are starting a project. The create step in the design cycle has a direct connection to the supply chain.
In manufacturing, the process by which products are made is called supply chain. At the STEM School, the chain closes to form a loop that ties the consumer stage back to the innovation and design stage. It is a means to evaluate and test the entire process for weaknesses that can be improved. The process for evaluation includes meta-cognition and self-reflection, so the learner includes his or her own involvement in the evaluation process.
AU/CAT Student Framework
Another framework used in designing the curriculum at the STEM School includes four components with outcomes, evidence of learning and experiences and activities. The framework includes: 1) Design Process Understanding, 2) Industry Experiences and Activities, 3) Career Awareness, and 4) Interpersonal Attributes. This framework provides parameters for developing lessons that ensure students are getting a full range of experiences and opportunities to engage in career exploration.
Illinois Pathways is a state-of-Illinois-led STEM education initiative that supports college and career readiness for students. It is supported through a partnership between the state of Illinois' lead education and economic development agencies and covers nine employment categories: 1) Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; 2) Architecture and Construction; 3) Energy; 4) Finance; 5) Health Science; 6) Information Technology; 7) Manufacturing; 8) Research and Development; and 9) Transportation, Distribution and Logistics. At the STEM School, we pull from these resources to connect what we do in the classroom to career paths, so students see the relevance of what they are learning on a daily basis.
4) A Community Combining Expertise and Perspectives
Community and Business Partnerships
The STEM School is a collaborative effort among many stakeholders. The community members who assist in facilitating its mission play an important role in fostering the climate of excellence and inquiry in STEM students. Equally as important are the business partners who bring real-world and career applications of STEM into the third- through eighth-grade classrooms.
An important element of the STEM School is developing constructs and systems for teaching and learning STEM that can be replicated. Our teachers are on two- or four-year rotations. They will return to their home school districts and work with their curriculum and instruction administrators to develop professional development for all teachers, so that STEM can be systematically taught and become the model for learning.
The STEM School is always seeking ways to remain a leader in STEM education. By continually seeking ways to grow, adapt to and learn from the ever-changing world around us, we continually seek to provide opportunities to our learners.