Science Opinion

All About STEM High Schools

By Tom Vander Ark — February 19, 2018 8 min read
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What is a STEM school? It used to mean there were a few more science and math classes.

These days, the best STEM schools engage students in real engineering and design challenges and connect them with career opportunities. Some STEM schools, with the help of employers, focus on specific job clusters. Others take advantage of community assets like a college, employer or a zoo.

Check out three dozen STEM high schools in 12 categories that make them special.

Focus on Design Thinking

Nuvu, in Cambridge Massachusetts, is an innovative school based on a project-based studio model lead by coaches who are leaders in their industry, experts in diverse fields and passionate thought leaders.(see feature).

One Stone ran a successful design thinking after-school program for eight years in Boise before opening a small innovative high school to help young people make the world a better place (see feature and video).

Design Tech High School (d.tech) is a charter high school on the Oracle campus in Redwood city. It merging personalized learning and design thinking with a focus on success skills to help students forge an identity that will help them as students, professionals and citizens.

Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD) serves a diverse group of students with a focus on innovation and design thinking in an environment that that is personalized, blended and competency-based. DSISD was incubated by DPS and was supported by Carnegie’s Opportunity by Design High School grant program.

The Nueva School is a P-12 private school with two bay area campuses offering a project based curriculum with design thinking and making at its heart. The iLAB at Nueva School is a great high end makerspace.

Computer Science & Computational Thinking

Alpha: Cindy Avitia High School in San Jose is part of Alpha Public Schools, a blended learning leader. Despite humble modular settings, the Avitia staff personalize learning and college and career preparation including computer science (below, see feature).

South Fayette School District, south of Pittsburgh, has four schools on one campus and a P-12 focus on computational thinking. Students learn to code, to attack complex problems, analyze data and sprint in teams to public products (see feature).

Phoenix Coding Academy focuses on computer coding and multiple technology pathways through an inquiry-based instructional design. Students address big problems and learn how to use computation as part of the solution. (Listen to podcast with one of their supporters, Google’s Jaime Casap.)


METSA New Tech says “Our mission ensures that students are strategically prepared for the rigor and self-discipline of college and the innovative demands of STEM career pathways,” and this is in spite the fact that more than 70% of the Carrollton, Texas students live in or near poverty. A capstone service projects culminates the METSA experience (see our feature).

Tech Valley High in Albany is a New Tech Network demonstration site (and lots of the 200 New Tech schools have a STEM focus). The school is a partnership of Questar III and Capital Region BOCES and is located on the campus of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. Watch this video discussion of the TVH graduate profile.

iTech Prep in Vancouver Washington is a 6-12 grade tech-rich STEM school featuring project-based learning. The middle school meets at a community center, while the high school is on the WSU campus (watch video).

Science Leadership Academy is an inquiry-driven, STEM-focused, project-based school formed as a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute.

Environmental STEM

Highland Academy is a 6-12 learning environment that promotes mastery learning through integrated project-based learning. Guiding ideas include shared leadership, shared vision, and personal mastery through standards-based instruction with systemic and systematic continuous improvement (featured on CompetencyWorks).

Energy Institute High School (@EnergyIHS) in Houston is creating opportunities for students to engage with businesses, corporate partners and leaders in the field of energy through high-quality project-based learning (see feature).

Furr High School (@FurrHS) in Houston is a big neighborhood high school in transition with a project- and place-based model grounded in the rigors of environmental and nutritional sciences. (See XQ video.)

Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine is an EL Education school which keeps the school’s goals “clear, ambitious and essential.” Casco juniors engage in a long-term interdisciplinary project that results in a demonstration of learning (featured on CompetencyWorks and Springpoint).

Teton Science Schools (K-12), in Wyoming and Idaho, are at the leading edge of place-based education. They have a graduate school and a range of school and professional development programs, and their students love it.

STEM Magnets

Bronx High School of Science is a selective STEM focused school in New York.

STEM Magnet at Mountlake Terrace High School is a school of choice in the Edmonds School District (north of Seattle) providing a 4-year program of study immersed in STEM studies and learning experiences.

Wheeler Magnet School in the Cobb County School District (Atlanta) received certification as a STEAM School in 2017.

K-12 STEM Systems

Reynoldsburg City Schools has two facilities and four academies, including eSTEM, featuring triple blocks on big topics like energy, environment and the economy.

High Tech High has four K-12 feeder patterns--two on the main campus in San Diego, one in north San Diego Country and one near the border in Chula Vista. All are great examples of integrated project-based learning and spectacular student art.

Propel Schools in Pittsburgh features a bundle of student-centered learning practices including big integrated projects, coding and maker (particularly strong in the middle grades). High school students participate in PLTW courses (see feature).

Girls in STEM

Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders serves 800 Austin girls in grades 6-12 in Austin, Texas. All graduates attend college, most in STEM fields.

Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy opened in 2011 in Houston in partnership with the Young Women’s Preparatory Network (one of eight other similar schools in Texas). They gave a terrific presentation at SXSWedu on coding and robotics.

Health STEM

Cornerstone Health+Technology High School in Detroit combines individual goal setting, project-based coursework, online learning, internships and teacher support.

Carl Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring, TX, puts students on one of three industry career paths (technology, health and professions) and supplements their curriculum with real-world experience (see our feature).

Kettle Moraine High School, west of Milwaukee, is a comprehensive high school that houses three charter schools including High School of Health Science which partners with three local hospitals to offer work study programs.

Engineering STEM

Southwest Miami High Academy of Finance, a member of the NAF network, has a 17-year track record of business partnerships that support student work experiences. The school, which serves a Hispanic neighborhood, has a 100% graduation and postsecondary enrollment rate. Miami Dade offers 49 NAF programs in the five career themes of engineering, finance, health science, hospitality & tourism and information technology at 26 high schools.

The Science Academy of South Texas in Mercedes (between Brownsville and McAllen) is one of the thousands of schools that use PLTW engineering curriculum to prepare students for STEM careers.

Early College STEM

Metro Early College High School was launched in 2006 in partnership with the Ohio State University and Battelle. Students tackle big ideas, do real work and take classes at OSU. Metro anchors the Ohio STEM Learning Network (featured here).

Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy is one of the five Chicago Public Schools Early College STEM Schools. A partnerships with IBM and Daley College allow students to work with professionals, acquire industry certifications and earn significant college credit while completing a rigorous high school program.

Zoo Schools

Science and Math Institute (SAMI) at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma is a great STEM school with built in zoo internships and outdoor science (below). They collaborate with SOTA (above) on academic and extracurricular opportunities.

The School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley (south Minneapolis) is located at the Minnesota Zoo and immerses students in the study of environmental topics and issues working with and often alongside professionals in the field.

Robotics and Advanced Manufacturing

RAMTEC in Marion, Ohio (an hour northwest of Columbus) at Tri-Rivers Career Center runs career and technical high school programs in advanced manufacturing, engineering technologies and welding. Through corporate partnerships, RAMTEC is able to offer high school students, community college students and adult workers some of the most current job training in the country (see feature).

GPS Education Partners manages 15 eastern Wisconsin education centers in partnership with 35 districts and more than 200 business partners. High school juniors and seniors take blended classes in the morning and participate in manufacturing internships in the afternoon. They graduate with job certificates and often college credit (see case study).

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