States

N.C. Program to Recognize Exemplary STEM Schools

By Erik W. Robelen — September 10, 2013 6 min read
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With the STEM label being applied liberally these days in education—some would say too liberally—North Carolina is launching an effort to publicly recognize schools and school-based programs that demonstrate they deserve the moniker.

The state initiative is guided by a set of STEM attributes centered around three pillars: an integrated curriculum for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that is standards-based; ongoing community and industry engagement; and connections with postsecondary education.

Tested and refined after a pilot this past academic year, the recognition program has attracted the notice of STEM education advocates in other states. For example, a state STEM network in Tennessee has borrowed the same criteria to evaluate the work of 10 STEM schools launched with federal Race to the Top dollars.

“Across all of education, there are fads that come and go,” said Tony Habit, the president of North Carolina New Schools, a nonprofit organization that’s involved with the initiative and has helped to open STEM schools. “It’s important that the true meaning of STEM becomes clearer for educators and community members, so [it] becomes about this transformational change that prepares young people for the new economy, not just placing a banner at the door of the school.”

He added, “This tool is going to take the meaning and value of STEM education to a much higher level in our state.”

The North Carolina education department last week issued the application guide for schools and STEM programs within schools—often called academies—to take part in the recognition venture.

Proponents say schools have several incentives to participate, including not simply the public recognition but also the opportunity to go through a process that will help them improve their practices and gain better clarity on what it means to be a STEM school. There is no financial incentive to do so, however.

Attributes for State Designation

Integrated STEM curriculum, aligned with state, national, international, and industry standards

  • Project-based learning with integrated content across STEM subjects
  • Connections to effective in- and out-of-school STEM programs
  • Integration of technology and virtual learning
  • Authentic assessment and exhibition of STEM skills
  • Professional development on integrated STEM curriculum, community/industry partnerships, and postsecondary education connections
  • Outreach, support, and focus on underserved students, especially females, minorities, and economically disadvantaged

Ongoing community and industry engagement

  • A communicated STEM plan is adopted across education, communities, and businesses
  • STEM work-based learning experiences, to increase interest and abilities in fields requiring STEM skills, for each student and teacher
  • Business and community partnerships for mentorship, internship, and other STEM opportunities that extend the classroom walls

Connections with postsecondary education

  • Alignment of student’s career pathway with postsecondary STEM program(s)
  • Credit completion at community colleges, colleges, and/or universities*

*Not required for elementary or middle schools.

SOURCE: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

Educators that were part of the pilot this past year said they found great value in the exercise.

“The rubric, it gives you a focus: Here is the path, these are the important things that will make you a better STEM school,” said Claire P. McLaughlin, a science teacher at Brunswick Early College High School in Bolivia, N.C.

“It clarifies our mission and goals,” added Cheryll D. Skaggs, the school’s acting director.

Two key areas that school has been working to improve as a result of the process, she said, are fostering better connections with local industry and business and embedding more project-based-learning opportunities in the classroom.

Beyond Silos

The North Carolina program comes as new STEM-focused schools are cropping up rapidly all over the country. (“Latest Wave of STEM Schools Taps New Talent,” Sept. 14, 2011.)

Under the initiative, applicant schools and programs will be rated at one of four stages: “early,” “developing,” “prepared,” and “model.” Those that are deemed to reach the top two tiers—prepared and model—will gain official recognition after approval by the state board of education.

The system is designed to be a “continuum,” said Sam Houston, the executive director of the North Carolina STEM Learning Network, a lead partner in its development. “The rubric is more or less a strategic-planning model to get a school from what we call ‘early’ to ‘model’ [status],” he said.

Although the program does not consider academic achievement, high schools and high-school-based programs may pursue a separate pathway under the state’s new Future-Ready STEM High School/Program of Achievement designation. To gain that recognition, applicants must demonstrate the same high level of adherence to the STEM attributes, but also must have a 90 percent graduation rate and meet other performance targets for 90 percent of students on the ACT college-entrance exam or a career-readiness measure.

Rebecca Payne, who was interviewed before retiring at the end of August as the STEM director for the North Carolina education department, said the main STEM recognition program has attracted a lot of interest from North Carolina schools, and she hopes that as many as 50 schools will submit applications this academic year. She cautioned, however, that very few schools will likely meet the high achievement bar for the Future-Ready designation.

Christy M. Cheek, the career and technical education director for the 25,000-student Buncombe County district, near Asheville, who was involved in the pilot, said that for her the emphasis on project-based learning and integrating the curriculum is an especially powerful component of the program’s vision for STEM schools.

“When you think about the STEM disciplines, you have to think of them working together in harmony and not being in silos,” said Ms. Cheek, whose district is working to establish a new STEM-focused high school.

Gary W. Hales, the principal of the Wayne School of Engineering in Goldsboro, which serves students in the middle and high school grades, said he found his school’s participation in the pilot “very useful in really analyzing what you do.”

Truly being a STEM school is no easy task, he said. “First of all, you have to redefine a culture in a school. You can’t think the same way, delivery [of instruction] can’t be the same. ... You’ve got to get teachers all on the same page.”

However, Elizabeth Parry, the coordinator of K-20 STEM partnership development at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said that even though she welcomes the recognition program’s intent and goals, she has some concerns about the handling of engineering.

Although the program will be a “very useful tool,” Ms. Parry said, she wishes it were more explicit about what would constitute the E in STEM. “I would like to see engineering explicitly called out,” she said, arguing that the current design is not as strong as she would have hoped in gauging a school’s approach to that discipline.

‘Prepared’ or ‘Model’

The development of the recognition program had input from a variety of stakeholders, said Ms. Payne, the recently retired state official.

Schools and programs will submit electronic applications explaining how they meet each of the 11 attributes (10 for middle and elementary schools), including specific dimensions of each.

For example, under the attribute of “project-based learning with integrated content across STEM subjects,” applicants would provide the frequency of project-based learning, the frequency of STEM integration, and the collaborative work of educators to achieve that.

Each application will be evaluated by a three- or four-member review team, Ms. Payne said, including educators, state officials, and representatives from the business community, museums, and other institutions.

Through the scoring process, those that are rated either “prepared” or “model” on all of the STEM attributes will ultimately host a two-hour visit by a local economic-development team to see a presentation and gather more information. Ms. Payne noted that such a visit will not be seen as a school inspection.

Afterward, this team can recommend that the application move to the state board of education for final approval, or it might raise issues to be addressed.

Tennessee has already picked up the set of attributes developed for the North Carolina program. The Tennessee STEM Innovation Network is using the guidelines as part of an external evaluation of 10 STEM “platform” schools the state has launched to serve as models.

“It really [embodies] everything I think our platform schools are trying to do,” said Wesley Hall, who directs the Tennessee network. “Project-based learning is a key component, [as are the] integration of technology, business and community partnerships, and internships. In a fully developed STEM school or program, you would hope to find all of these things.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as N.C. Rolls Out Recognition Program for STEM Schools

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