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The U joined forces with a community building a new school to integrate science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts

Teacher Kaylene Jensen works with her fifth-grade class in a design lab to create their models.

In a room that looks like shop class for the 21st century, about 30 fifth graders in goggles work intently on prototypes for tiny boats. Girls and boys move from work benches with vices to belt sanders, scroll saws, and drill presses. They measure and eyeball the models emerging from their chunks of pale purple foam core, calculate and make adjustments. Several students hover near the teacher, Kaylene Jensen, waiting for feedback and listening as she gives feedback to classmates. Near the floor-to-ceiling window is an Aqua Track, a narrow channel filled with water, where their final projects will eventually set sail, subject to another phase of observation, data collection, and analysis.

The classroom is a design lab at I. J. Holton Intermediate School in Austin, Minnesota, which opened in September. The new school for all 725 fifth- and six-graders in the growing district is designed around a curriculum that focuses on the integration of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—plus the district’s long-standing dedication to the arts. In Austin, STEM + arts = STEAM.

The STEAM focus is apparent throughout the building. Exposed girders and structural systems display its engineering. Feet and meter marks travel down the central corridor floor. Watercolors in a studio are visible from the hallway. There’s a kiln upstairs. Amber cellos glow in the orchestra room. And all the students have laptop computers.

One of the questions that principal Jean McDermott hears is whether engineering is too hard for elementary kids. Wouldn’t it be better at the high school level? Her answer is a simple no.

“Fifth and sixth grade is when we [schools] start losing kids,” she replies. “They come to kindergarten all full of creativity and energy…so what do we need to do to keep that spark going? We’re giving them a new tool.

“What we teach is the design process,” she continues, “and it’s not too early for that. Kids need to have these kinds of skills and processes for almost everything.”

Design thinking

One of the 30-foot walls in Holton School displays a giant mural that summarizes the design process: Ask. Imagine. Plan. Create. Improve. This simple framework for problem solving applies to engineering as well as art.

What distinguishes the STEAM curriculum developed at Holton School is its inquiry-based, transdisciplinary approach.

“Lots of STEM teacher preparation is focused on content, but we moved away from that,” says U associate professor of STEM education Bhaskar Upadhyay (oo-pa-de-ya), who worked with Holton’s leadership, teachers, and community partners to design the curriculum. They focused on laying a theoretical and conceptual foundation along with process, rather than focusing solely on content. “We wanted to break the content barriers so students would not experience those barriers.”

As a result, he explains, students begin to think about learning as a process of interacting and navigating between what they know based on their own experience, on one hand, and academic knowledge on the other.

“We talk about habits of mind,” says Upadhyay. “STEM habits of mind and arts habits of mind are very similar—curiosity, persistence, collaboration, and systems thinking. When we show how these habits of mind support learning, teachers and students themselves can see that they support all subjects, and no matter what their cultural background happens to be.”

The Holton team is learning to document the development of those habits of mind, and the district adapted its report card.

Preparing for growth

Five years ago, a new school for Austin’s fifth and sixth-graders was not on anybody’s radar. But the district was growing. McDermott had only recently helped to open the district-wide kindergarten center with a class of 330, up from 250 in the years running up to that point. The diversity of the population was unprecedented in Austin, and a growing percentage qualified for free and reduced lunch.

Orchestra, band, and instruments occupy prime space in the new school.

In 2010, the district conducted a demographic study and a facilities survey, formed a task force, and hired a consulting firm to look at options, from remodeling to reorganization. The idea to build a new school for all fifth- and sixth-graders emerged as one option, taking fifth-graders from the four existing grade schools and sixth-graders from the junior high.

Building a new school around STEAM was the next step. Austin is the hometown of Hormel Foods and many other companies and organizations that rely heavily on science and technology. It also has a strong value for the arts: Austin Public Schools (APS) is part of Minnesota’s Big Nine conference of schools that sponsor what may be the longest-running music festival in the state.

The opportunity to build a school where students would not have to choose between arts and sciences struck a chord. And Austin’s demographics were compelling—55 percent free or reduced lunch, 14 percent English learners, 40 percent non-white, and 15 percent special education.

“It was very important to us that this not be a school of choice or privilege,” explains John Alberts, APS director of educational services. “This was the moral imperative from which we worked.”

When a bonding bill passed in November 2011 and plans for the building moved ahead, the district began to assemble a staff, beginning with a principal. McDermott, an Austin native with a love of math, a drive for making things happen, and a soft spot for middle-school students, applied for the position and was hired.

The next step was preparing the staff and providing the professional development they needed to teach in a STEAM school.

Partnership power

In 2012, about 70 Austin teachers were just finishing master’s degrees in education from the University’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), taking all their classes on-site in Austin. The Hormel Fellowship program was an unusual partnership, with coursework developed and sequenced to meet the needs of teachers from the district, and supported by the Hormel Foundation.

With the fellowship program complete, continuing the partnership’s research-to-practice bridge was important to the district—a vision fully supported by the foundation. Planning for the new school became the partnership’s focus.

STEAM team core members, left to right: U STEM faculty member Bhaskar Upadhyay, CEHD professional development coordinator Kara Coffino, Austin Public Schools director of educational services John Alberts, and Holton principal Jean McDermott.

“I believe that professional development should be designed based on the context and needs of the teachers we are working with,” says Kara Coffino, Ph.D. ’12, coordinator of the University’s field-based professional development partnerships in CEHD. “We planned a two-year PD partnership that is completely tailored and includes an evaluation component so we can constantly improve and refine our work.”

Coffino was familiar with many faces in Austin from working with the cohort of 70 M.Ed students over the previous four years. She was excited to collaborate on the professional development needed for the teachers to be successful at the new STEAM school.

Upadhyay was a science education faculty member from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and STEM Education Center. He brought a wealth of skills and experience from research and teaching in poor urban neighborhoods in Nepal and the United States, such as gardening at Minneapolis schools to learn STEM content.

Alberts, M.Ed. ’99, had grown up in Worthington and come to Austin in 2000 as an English teacher. The opportunity to open a STEAM school was a good match for his interests. As director of educational services for the district, his role was to begin the conversation with the U that focused on both the professional development and the evaluation associated with the project.

Inspired by the wetland outside the school, blues and greens carry the theme of water and flora through hallways and classrooms. Bays on the fifth-grade level are named for local watersheds—Dobbins Creek, Cedar River, Turtle Creek—and on the sixth-grade level for state waters.

Coffino and Upadhyay began regular drives to Austin. For six months they and Alberts worked together to plan how the vision for the school would become a reality. When McDermott came on as principal, the team of four began creating an integrated, transdisciplinary curriculum.

Alberts and McDermott also attended a national STEM education summit where they realized the need to involve community partners from the beginning and in a more systematic way. They came back and immediately organized a STEAM advisory committee of 15-20 members in Austin including the Mayo Health System-Austin/Albert Lea, Hormel Foods, Hormel Institute, the soil and water conversation district, the Izaak Walton League, and others.

Contributions of the community partners began to directly affect the emerging character of the school. Coffino remembers a discussion about ways to integrate community partners into curricular units of study that the teachers were developing for the new school, such as a transdisciplinary unit on designing water filters.

“One of our partners pointed out the parallels between water filtration systems and dialysis,” she says. “Nobody but that partner had the knowledge to contribute that insight. The value they were providing to the instructional planning and creating rich experiences for student learning immediately became so clear.”

Phasing in

When school started in September, the planning paid off. Coffino and Upadhyay loved seeing and hearing the new building fill with children and teachers in the beautiful new space. They were there with McDermott and Alberts for the school’s dedication and ribbon-cutting September 28, when rain could not deter hundreds of community members from coming out to celebrate and learn what a STEAM school looks like.

In the classrooms, STEAM went to work. As McDermott took on her role as principal of a full building, the work of instructional coaching shifted to Coffino and Upadhyay.

“Research shows that only a small percentage of change ‘sticks’ without ongoing support,” says Coffino. “Now that the school is open, we’re actually in Austin more. We’re not phasing out, we’re phasing in.”

Evaluation is also in progress. The University’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) is the evaluator for the project and will help to document the impact of the curriculum.

It is almost unprecedented for a Research 1 institution to engage with partners in the type of collaboration between APS and CEHD’s Office of Professional Development, says Coffino.

“It’s something we hope to do much more of in support of our land-grant mission across the state.”

Learn more CEHD’s Office of Professional Development or contact director Nate Sawyer at 612-624-4753.

Read more about I. J. Holton Intermediate School.

Story by Gayla Marty | Photos by Nate Howard | Winter 2014

This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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