STEM-Focused Schools on Rise Across Nation

By Erik W. Robelen — September 15, 2011 4 min read
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The United States is seeing a significant surge in the number of STEM-focused schools, a development I examine in a new EdWeek story. In fact, quite a few just opened this academic year, including a new STEM high school on the campus of N.C. State University that I visited in late August.

As the story explains, while, historically, STEM schools have tended to target the top math and science students in a given state or district, the new wave appears to have a broader reach. Many of the schools cropping up are aimed especially at serving groups underrepresented in the STEM fields, such as African-American, Hispanic, female, and low-income students.

As so often happens when I report for an in-depth story, I gathered far more material than I was able to publish, so I’d like to share a few tidbits that ended up on the cutting-room floor.

For example, Cleveland (as well as Ohio more broadly) is the site of some new energy around STEM schooling. One of that state’s 10 STEM “platform” schools, the MC2 STEM High School, brings a focus like many of the new schools on project-based learning and integrating STEM across the curriculum.

“I think a lot of people define STEM differently,” said Jeffrey D. McClellan, the head of school. “Our definition of STEM encompasses this notion of the acronym being connected, not silos. ... Everything is connected.”

Through local partnerships, the freshmen attend school at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, while sophomores are at Nela Park, the corporate headquarters of General Electric. And the school, opened in 2008, provides older students access to internships and apprenticeship opportunities.

McClellan acknowledged that his school, which has earned a national reputation, has some special advantages.

“Not every school can be located on the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company,” he told me. “But we take our position as a platform school pretty seriously, and think that, one, we’re proving what can be done with kids who come from very diverse backgrounds.”

The school population is almost entirely students from low-income families; 80 percent are African-American.

“The only entrance requirement is that you apply to get into the lottery,” McClellan said. “I think we should be serving everybody that wants to come.”

The school is working to assist others, including a set of P-8 schools in the Cleveland district that recently took on a new STEM focus and are trying to pick up in particular on MC2’s approach to project-based learning.

“We’re working with their teachers, with their principals, and say to them, here’s what works for us, and here’s how we went about doing that work,” McClellan told me.

Eric S. Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland school district, said the MC2 school has been a valuable asset in helping other schools along.

But he said reinventing the P-8 schools with a new STEM focus won’t be easy and is a gradual process. Five of the six schools were identified for transformation because of poor academic performance.

“This isn’t just slapping a [STEM] label on the school,” Gordon said. “It’s promising work around a STEM theme, but work that is far from completed.”

Although my story ended up focusing on STEM schools that are not highly selective, I did speak with the leader of one such school, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, where the design is to reach far beyond the students the school serves.

“We don’t even call ourselves a school, since we aspire to be the world’s leading learning laboratory” for teaching math and science, said Max McGee, the president. “Part of our legislative charge is to be a catalyst to transform math and science education throughout Illinois.”

He noted that the academy, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, recently opened three field offices: one on the South Side of Chicago, one in rural Rock Island, and a third in Metro East, an area of Illinois east of St. Louis. Those field offices provide teacher professional development, as well as after-school programs and summer camps.

McGee said that while there are certainly differences between highly selective STEM schools and those targeting a broader or more disadvantaged population, the kind of approach his school takes can be applied elsewhere.

“What we have found with our field work with middle school students is that these methods of inquiry-based mathematics and science instruction can really work for all students,” he said.

Meanwhile, I’ll highlight some of the research getting under way focused on STEM schools.

As my story notes, the National Science Foundation recently provided a grant to explore the feasibility of conducting a long-term, national study of “inclusive” STEM schools that target underrepresented populations. That work is being led by Barbara Means from SRI International. Means also co-authored a 2008 report on STEM high schools, based on a survey of such schools. And earlier this year, SRI completed another study on a Texas network of STEM schools.

Meanwhile, Sharon Lynch from George Washington University is leading a new, two-year research project, also with support from the NSF, to provide case studies of about a dozen inclusive STEM schools.

“Nobody has been inside the schools systematically,” Lynch told me. “I can’t even find a case study online.”

Meanwhile, the NSF has provided another recent grant to examine the work of the Ohio STEM Learning Network. The $1.5 million grant will be used to study the factors affecting the implementation, spread, and sustainability of innovative STEM teaching and learning at the secondary school level.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.