The Advantages of a STEM Program

Studying science, technology, engineering and math benefits all students

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Students in Kimball Elementary, a STEM designated school, explore natural science outdoors in the school’s STEM program. Photo courtesy DCPS.

STEM education programming is a comprehensive approach to learning. It focuses on the four subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The concept has been around for more than twenty years, but focus has intensified after a 2005 report by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine emphasized the links between prosperity, jobs dependent on STEM knowledge, and continued innovation to addressing societal problems. But how exactly do schools implement the STEM approach, and is it right for your child?

Rather than teaching each subject as a separate course, a STEM-oriented curriculum integrates the STEM fields into all aspects of education. Schools can be STEM-oriented, where STEM subjects are integrated into teaching across all subjects, or offer STEM programs, where a class or laboratory is offered to build interest and focus on STEM subjects.

STEM in The District
The District of Columbia Public School System (DCPS) renewed their commitment to STEM in 2013 by partnering with the Carnegie Academy for Science Education to create the DC STEM Network, which helps to administer and guide STEM schools in the District.

According to Marlena Jones, the Director of the DC STEM Network, there are various definitions of a STEM school, but the key is that the students have the opportunity to engage with STEM activities throughout the day.

While still noting that STEM careers are clearly on the rise, Jones said, “Participation in STEM is not solely to produce a child who will focus on a STEM career. It is also a way of teaching critical thinking, the ability to analyze, and investigation skills. All of these core skills for STEM will help a student regardless of their career choice.”

In the District, STEM programs are available for students from preschool to graduation in private, public and public charter schools.

In total, there are nine STEM schools in the DCPS system, including five at the elementary, two at the middle and two at the high school level. Of these, Kimball Elementary School, Burroughs Elementary School and McKinley Technology High School have been designated as STEM schools by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Eagle Academy Public Charter School has been offering STEM programs since 2003, and public charter schools such as Howard University Middle School PCS and Washington Mathematics Science Technology High School also employ the STEM approach.

McKinley Technology graduate Sasha Ariel Alston poses with the cover of her book, Sasha Savvy Loves to Code, at the book launch party in August 2017.

McKinley Technology High School
McKinley Technology High School serves students in grades 9 to 12 and has been a STEM school since it re-opened after renovations in 2004. Students entering McKinley are not required to have attended a STEM elementary or middle school. At the end of their freshman year, students select a STEM major in Biotechnology, Engineering or Information Technology and focus on that major.

Principal M. Louise Jones says that a STEM education is important because, in the 21st century, “STEM rules everything.”

“By attending a STEM-based high school, students are able to have a relevant education with the potential to create their own career opportunities or lead innovation in almost any career field.”

But Jones is careful to emphasize that STEM-based teaching and McKinley High also prioritize fundamental skills. “Literacy is the foundation of our curriculum. If students are unable to access content, that blocks their learning in math, coding and science. Students are writing in every class, including their STEM-Based classes.”

STEM learning can provide students with the exposure and training that will put them on any number of new and exciting career paths. Sasha Ariel Alston, a 2015 McKinley Tech graduate, is an Information Systems and Fashion Marketing major at Pace University in New York City. She is also the author of the children’s book Sasha Savvy Loves to Code and is a STEM activist and speaker who focuses on directing girls, especially girls of color, towards STEM subjects. She said that her decision to attend a STEM school played a tremendous role in her life and career.

“McKinley Tech played a huge role in getting me interested in coding. Before high school, I never heard of coding or STEM,” she said. At high school she chose Information Technology as her major, “based on me loving my iPhone and iPad,” she says. But her interest was developed through the school programing.

“I wasn’t truly interested until I had a Microsoft internship in the AthleTech Division my senior year (age 16) where coding was used to create a gaming app by my team. The internship was designed specifically to give students a real work experience. Since then, I’ve had seven additional internships,” she said.

“More women role models are definitely needed so I became one myself. Less than 1% of high school girls are even interested in pursuing a computer science degree. Raising interest and changing statistics starts with exposing girls to STEM at an early age.”

Like many DCPS high schools, McKinley Tech offers National Academy Foundation (NAF) Career Academies, providing mentors, training and internship opportunities. Principal Jones said that about 80% of McKinley students complete an internship before graduating.

Principal Jones also emphasizes technology integration as an important part of a STEM-related education. Children should have access to technology, and the opportunity to safely explore its use.

“If a program has access to the resources, technology should be integrated at every point,” says Principal Jones, pointing to smart boards, technical equipment such as 3D printers and lasers, or the use of tablets or laptops to incorporate lessons into practice. “Even cell phones can have a place.”

McKinley Tech is a 1-1 technology school, meaning that there is a technological device such as a tablet or computer for every child. McKinley offers a laptop to every student.

Students at Eagle Academy PCS work with tablet-directed robotics.

Eagle Academy Public Charter School
Eagle Academy Public Charter School, which serves students in grades pre-K3 to 3, also emphasizes the value of technology integration into the classroom. There is an iPad for every child and a Prometheus Board, a television-sized smart tablet, in every classroom. The school also explores creative ways for students to explore their STEM-related knowledge. Eagle is piloting an underwater robotics program in the upper grades where students will build and operate robots in the school’s swimming pool.

Karen Brooks Bauer is one of two program directors at Eagle Academy Public Charter School. The school has a STEAM program –Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics—that brings the subjects into the classroom once a week.

“What we do here at Eagle is we add on arts integration,” she said. “We make sure to touch on the National Core arts standards when we’re teaching our science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.”

For instance, Bauer teaches science lessons incorporating dramatic play as students pretend to describe their needs for a building they are designing. Then the students draft a plan for a building, incorporating the visual arts, in preparation for building it later which incorporates engineering.

Bauer says that, “the earlier a child is exposed to STEM subjects the better because it takes advantage of their natural curiosity. Some of the best STEM experiences I’ve had here at Eagle especially are working with the three- and four-year-olds, because they’re just so excited about it, everything’s new, and they just have this unbelievable thirst for knowledge. And I think if you can take advantage of that early it will just grow with time.”

She says that the school has a special appeal to girls in STEM because it is spearheaded by two professional females, herself and fellow teacher Courtney Brown. The two bring a background in education and hard science to the STEM program, including undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry and masters degrees in science education. Bauer said little girls see the two as female role models in STEM subjects.

Bauer emphasizes the importance of role models in STEM fields. “It’s very important for kids to meet and spend time with individuals that have STEM careers,” she adds, noting that Eagle has community partners with careers in fields such as engineering that come to the school to provide mentorship.

Educators agree that STEM programs are suitable for all students no matter their strengths or inclinations, and that they provide for a multiplicity of needs. McKinley’s Principal agrees. “Our students graduate as true practitioners, prepared for college. We care for our students and make sure to cater to the whole student, academically, socially and emotionally.”

Director Jones of the DC STEM Network says that STEM programs offer a wide variety of different opportunities valuable to all children.

“It’s up to a parent to make the decision to send their child to a STEM-designated school. However, I think there should be STEM activities in every school,” she said. “A school can be an art school and still incorporate STEM activities.”