Hollywood Hill Elementary adding STEM approach to science learning

  • Written by Shannon Michael, Features Writer

STEM is a very popular acronym in education right now, especially at the college level. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

With businesses clamoring for employees with STEM training, colleges are actively increasing STEM courses, such as UW-Bothell where a new building is under construction for additional STEM options for students.

High schools are also coming on board including Bothell High, which introduced a two-period materials science engineering course this year.

Now, the concept is being introduced at the elementary level at Hollywood Hill Elementary in two fourth grade classes this year.

An information night for all Hollywood Hill Elementary parents is scheduled for Tuesday, October 22, from 6  to 7 p.m. in the gym to discuss how the STEM approach is being incorporated into the school’s curriculum.

Why at the elementary level?

Principal Scott Beebe explained, in an email interview, a very good reason for introducing this approach to learning at such a young age in students. "There is some research that highlights this as an elementary problem, because kids make up their minds about whether or not they are ‘good’ or interested in STEM subject matter around the age of 10," he wrote, although that was not the primary factor in deciding to pursue the STEM approach.

If students can learn STEM subjects, discover the subjects are interesting, and see that they can be good students in learning these subjects, then hopefully more students, as they grow older, will continue to consider STEM subjects worth pursuing in college and beyond.

Since Beebe came to Hollywood Hill three years ago, two of the most consistent messages he’s heard from parents in their community were they want more science instruction and they want their kids challenged academically, regardless of where they might fall on the continuum of learning or understanding.

During this introductory year Beebe said the STEM approach is being taught in the fourth grade classes of Jennie Knapp and Kurt Archuleta, with the hopes of growing the emphasis through the fifth and sixth grades before eventually looping back around to third grade.  

"Our intent really is to drive rigor and deep content through contexts that kids care about and have some ownership over," Beebe wrote. He added that they are specifically emphasizing problem-based learning, which challenges students to develop solutions to problems around big ideas. 

The STEM approach is not replacing the Northshore School District’s current science curriculum, Beebe explained, but rather broadening the curriculum to drive learning deeper across content areas.

"In a sense, we are attempting to build on students’ inherent intellectual curiosity," he wrote.

An example might be in mathematics, particularly around data and data analysis. Beebe explained that the district’s Common Core curriculum expects kids to be able, for example, to describe a set of data in terms of what it is telling them and then draw conclusions from the data itself.

They teach probability and statistics in their adopted math curriculum, and kids do gain some exposure to data analysis that way. 

"The STEM work, though, provides a compelling context for kids to hang that learning on something they care about enough to engage with it. That’s when learning really takes place, when you have context and purpose for it, and that is what we are attempting to do with our STEM focus," Beebe wrote. 

The STEM approach, Beebe explained, is being seed funded through community partnership dollars, a small part of their building budget, and mostly through a very strong partnership with their PTA.

"PTA has been amazingly supportive of the concept and our work so far both in terms of time and energy to support even things like our parent launch party on [October] 22, as well as financially, setting aside a large chunk of money we have tapped to purchase materials and support teacher training," he wrote. 

In addition, the school received a grant and has formed a partnership with the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.

Through that partnership they’ve been able to receive support from Kim Klinke who works through the Center for Inquiry Science group at ISB. She has been instrumental in working with their school team in developing their vision for STEM, as well as their actual lessons and approach with kids.

To Beebe’s knowledge, he is not aware of any other NSD elementary school implementing a similar STEM approach.

"There are certainly schools that emphasize the same kinds of things, i.e. soft skills, we are attempting, and we are all held accountable to the same standards and expectations of curriculum fidelity in our district as any other school," he wrote.

But, he does see the potential to increase their emphasis on STEM concepts across the district through the work all schools are mandated to do with Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, Teacher Evaluation and the new Smarter Balanced Assessment.

He works closely with the district’s curriculum director, Nancy Young, and the assistant superintendent of elementary education, Kathleen Poole, both of whom are completely supportive of this work his school is doing.

"We are, of course, also willing to share our learning and experience with anyone and everyone interested. We really are attempting to do the best work we can for the students we serve here at Hollywood Hill," Beebe explained.

Considering everything that teachers are asked every school day to do to educate students, Beebe applauds his staff’s decision to take an educated risk and implement a new approach to learning.

They know there will be a learning curve in implementing the STEM approach, and that mistakes may be made in the process, but the anticipated outcome of producing more students willingly engaged in STEM areas of study can only have a positive effect in producing a larger workforce educated in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

For parents not able to attend the event on October 22, Beebe said the school is launching a website as part of their effort to communicate what they are learning and attempting to do with their STEM work.

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