Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

STEM Schools Put High Priority on Digital Skills

By Katie Ash — May 20, 2013 8 min read
Students, from left, Jakob Hindman, Catherine Yao, and Sriram Natarajan work on adding a touch sensor to the back of their robot during an engineering class at the STEM High School in the Lake Washington school district outside Seattle.
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Educators in the Lake Washington school district in Washington state have partnered with a university to build a project-based, STEM-focused program that engages high schoolers with technology and college-level digital curricula. Students at Metro Early College High School in Columbus, Ohio, work in a 1-to-1 computing environment that features laptops, iPads, and other devices to access an individualized multimedia curriculum curated by their teachers. At the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., students conduct original research in 13 different specialized in-house labs stocked with state-of-the-art technology and equipment.

Those three schools, like many other STEM-focused schools around the country, are strengthening their partnerships with both private companies and higher education partners to provide the kinds of high-tech, collaborative environments students will find as they move on to college and the workforce.

Educators hope that by exposing students to such tools early and teaching them how to use digital resources professionally and educationally, they will cultivate a new generation of young professionals interested in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“We’re very aware that we’re preparing kids now for career and life options that are probably not fully defined right at this moment,” said Aimee Kennedy, the principal of the 400-student Metro Early College High.

When it opened in 2006, as part of the Ohio STEM Learning Network, the school partnered with Ohio State University and the Columbus-based Battelle Memorial Institute, a global science and technology research-and-development organization. Each of those partners contributes three members to the school’s board. The school itself is located on the university’s campus.

Having business and university partners helps keep the school flexible and forward-thinking, Ms. Kennedy said. "[The members of the board] aren’t the people who have been doing the business of school as school has been done for eons and eons,” she said. “They have other ways of doing business that sometimes are so refreshing.”

The school features 1-to-1 computing—every student has his or her own laptop—and while some classes use textbooks, most of the course materials consist of digital resources the teachers have found, curated, and shared with students, she said.

Teaching students how to use technology in a professional environment is a big part of the education at Metro Early College High, Ms. Kennedy said.

“We get freshmen who’ve never had an email address,” she said. “We have had students turn something in but not actually click that submit button.”

The curriculum focuses on a project- and competency-based model, in which students do not get credit for a class unless they receive an A. Students are allowed to repeat classes, or parts of classes, as needed, and they’re allowed to test out of classes to move ahead faster. The school also offers college courses through Ohio State.

The result is a flexible environment that can both remediate and accelerate students, Ms. Kennedy said.

In addition, each student is required to complete an internship outside the school before graduation, usually drawing on connections with Battelle, giving the student an opportunity to work in the field on real-world problems.

Not all students pursue internships in tech-related fields, but many do, said Ms. Kennedy, allowing students to put their digital skills to work.

‘Working on a Real Issue’

Connecting authentic learning experiences with high schoolers is also a major emphasis of the STEM school in the 25,400-student Lake Washington district outside Seattle.

Menna Meyyappan, a 10th grader at the Lake Washington school district’s STEM High School, draws a diagram during a programming class in Redmond, Wash. “I visualize what I need to program to make my frame playable,” she says.

That school, called the STEM High School, has partnered with the University of Washington to provide internships, expertise, and college-level curricula, said its principal, Cindy Duenas, and it has pursued relationships with companies to provide internships and other learning experiences for its students.

“No longer are we just doing lab work for the sake of doing lab work,” said Ms. Duenas. "[Our students] see that they’re working on a real issue that could have a positive impact.”

To complete such work, she said, students have access to high-tech labs that seat up to 75 people and contain the technology expected from a university-level research lab, including biotechnology DNA equipment, a crime scene digital evidence photo system, and a geographic information systems (GIS) lab. The district itself moved to a 1-to-1 laptop computing model last year, which has greatly supported the work at the STEM school in particular, she said.

Ms. Duenas describes the school’s curriculum as a combination of problem- and project-based learning, in which students spend the school year working on six or seven projects.

Students tend to have similar schedules during the 9th and 10th grades, but when they enter 11th grade, they begin to differentiate the curriculum by choosing a STEM-focused concentration. Rising juniors this year can choose between environmental engineering and sustainable design, forensic psychology, or digital media and design, Ms. Duenas said.

At the 400-student New Technology High School in Napa, Calif., students are thrust into a business-style setting that lets them learn collaboratively in teams through project-based learning in a technology-rich environment.

The school runs on a “bring your own device,” or BYOD, model, in which students bring digital devices from home to connect to the school’s wireless network.

Netbooks are available for students who don’t have their own devices, said Michelle Spencer, the principal of the 17-year-old school, but after the holiday season, the school now has 60 leftover netbooks because most students have acquired their own computing devices, she said.

Playing Digital Games in Science

Germ Blaster

Created by: Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning, Rice University in Houston
Grade levels: K-12
Device: iPad
In this arcade-style shooter game, students use different “weapons,” such as antibiotics, vaccines, and antiviral medications, to fight pathogens. As players progress through the levels, they learn which medications are effective on the attacking pathogens. Clicking on the weapons or pathogens gives the player more information about what they are and how they interact. The game grew out of a Web-based Flash game created for computers, called MedMyst, a series of games in which players investigate and learn about infectious-disease outbreaks.

Legends of Alkhimia

Created by: Game-Based Learning Initiative, Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education, Singapore
Grade levels: High School chemistry students
Device: Windows-based PC
This 3-D, multiplayer game allows students to work together to save a town called Alkhimia from chemical disasters and chemical-based invaders by placing them in the role of apprentice to a master alchemist. The six-level game requires players to overcome challenges, such as a toxic-chemical spill or an invasion of chemical-based monsters, by using their knowledge of chemistry. Players experiment in a virtual lab to come up with solutions to the problems. The game, which can accommodate four players at a time, is meant to be used as part of a science curriculum; students talk about their ideas and analyze data from the game after play is complete.

Progenitor X

Created by: Games+Learning+Society, Madison, Wis.
Grade levels: 7-12
Device: Laptop or desktop computer
In this game, students become part of the Progenitor X Defense Force—a highly trained squad of scientists who are humanity’s last hope for survival against a zombie outbreak. Using the latest biomedical technology, students help find and treat humans infected with the disease by manipulating stem cells. A scientist, Dr. Yeong, leads players through the process of cultivating cells, constructing tissue, and repairing organs to prevent infected humans from spreading the disease. The game is based on research conducted by the Madison, Wis.-based Morgridge Institute for Research and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Solar Walk

Created by: Vito Technology Inc., Alexandria, Va.
Grade levels: K-12
Device: iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad
This app allows students to explore the universe through a 3-D model of the solar system and the Milky Way galaxy. The model includes man-made satellites, planets, asteroids, comets, stars, and other elements. Players can tap on the object they’d like to see to zoom in on it, and an “info” button reveals general information and facts about it as well as photos of the object. In addition, students can watch educational movies about the solar system or scroll through a timeline to see a time lapse of a planet’s formation or a satellite’s path.


Created by: Center for Game Science, University of Washington
Grade levels: 9-12
Device: Desktop or laptop computer (Windows, OSX, or Linux)
This simple online game has had big implications for the science community since its public launch in 2008. FoldIt consists of a series of puzzles that require players to fold proteins into their most compact and stable shape. Each protein is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of amino acids that allow for almost endless variations for protein folding. The game allows players to fold disease-related proteins that do not have a known structure, allowing scientists to take the work that players are doing and apply it to their own research. These breakthroughs, created by thousands of players working competitively to fold proteins, can inform the scientific community about how the proteins will interact with certain medications to prevent and treat medical conditions such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

—Katie Ash

New Tech High also receives technology donations from business partners in the community, including a recently donated 3-D printer that Ms. Spencer hopes to incorporate into the curriculum next year.

The tech-infused environment can take some getting used to, said Christa Rico, a sophomore. "[The teachers] definitely started us off very slowly,” she said, by introducing students to their email accounts and showing them how to keep track of their progress in the school’s learning management system, which enables students and parents to keep a close eye on the students’ grades.

“It was hard to get into checking my email and [the LMS] every night, but now I have my email open even during the summer and breaks,” Ms. Rico said.

Using technology also breaks down the barriers between teachers and students at the school, said junior Pamela Willeford.

“New teachers often don’t feel comfortable with technology,” she said, “and the students and the rest of the staff help them.”

What’s more, all students have access to a video-production lab where they can create professional-quality videos. One such video recently won honorable mention in a national student-created video contest hosted by C-SPAN.

“It’s a convenient way for teachers to allow students to show what they’ve learned,” Ms. Spencer said.

In addition, the school partners with Napa Valley College to provide STEM-related college classes on the school’s campus. And students are required to complete a 50-hour internship in the field of their choice during the summer between their junior and senior years or during senior year.

After the internships, students are required to create digital portfolios of the projects they’ve worked on during their time at New Tech to share with prospective colleges or employers.

‘Greater Meaning’

Meanwhile, at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, students have access to 13 specialized research labs to perform original research and learn about the latest developments in STEM fields, said the school’s principal, Evan Glazer.

Students at the science and technology school are chosen from applicants based on merit and interest in STEM by an admissions office separate from the school, Mr. Glazer said.

All the elective courses are STEM-focused, and students are required to complete a rigorous science and technology curriculum, including at least one year each of computer science, calculus, and design and technology, as well as four years of core science courses, in addition to a senior-year research project. The project requires each student to conduct original research on a topic of the student’s choice.

The more specialized classes that the school offers—such as microbiotics, alternative energy systems, neuroscience electronics, and nanotechnology—are proposed by the teachers at the school with feedback from government and industry partners about the most pressing trends and needs in STEM fields, said Mr. Glazer.

Teachers at Thomas Jefferson typically curate the curriculum for each of the specialized classes through a combination of digital resources, research, and proprietary resources, such as textbooks.

“The nature of curriculum is often driven by what students know and what they’re able to do,” Mr. Glazer said. “What’s unique about some of the outcomes of our curriculum is that there’s an expectation that you’re going to help students go in directions that haven’t been defined.”

If students want access to technology not available in the labs at the school, which Mr. Glazer said resemble equipment you would typically find at a university, they are encouraged to reach out to other partners, such as the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., for mentorship and access to equipment.

“Whenever there’s connectivity to an outside organization or a real problem that we experience, it creates greater meaning for the students,” Mr. Glazer said.

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Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as STEM Schools’ Digital Push


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