Through STEMpact program, City of St. Charles School District develops successful STEM Academy

Teachers in the City of St. Charles School District have built a blueprint for successful STEM learning that could soon be replicated in districts across the St. Louis region.

The winning formula is a three-year, multi-level STEM Leadership Academy developed as part of the STEMpact Integration Quality program or STEM IQ. The matching grant program allows participants to implement STEM programs unique to their classroom, building or district.

So, how does STEM IQ work? Districts apply and develop a three-year implementation plan to strategically impact the STEM opportunities in their school districts, in conjunction with STEMpact facilitators. Victoria May, executive director of STEMpact – a program managed by the Institute for School Partnership at Washington University –  said STEM IQ is a deep, systematic approach to integrating STEM in school districts. She said it allows for greater impact than a teacher-by-teacher approach.

“Instead of asking, ‘What does STEM look like in your classroom? We’re asking, what does STEM look like throughout your district?’” May said. “Knowing where to focus time and attention when getting started can mean all the difference between a solid program and one that fades after a couple of years. When planned right, this STEM ‘wave’ creates meaningful and sustainable change.”

Officials with the City of St. Charles School District and STEMpact facilitators brainstormed various possibilities before settling on the academy concept, according to Nicole Adams, an elementary curriculum and instruction specialist, who helped develop the academy. They knew the best way to ensure that the most teachers are impacted was through a collaborative, hands-on STEMcentric professional development approach.

“We decided to call it a STEM leadership academy because we didn’t just want it to be relevant to one teacher in a single classroom,” explained Candice Settlemoir, an elementary instructional coach in the district who oversees the academy. “Our goal was to create a large community of STEM inspired educators.”

Participants are teachers from PreK to 6th grade. They’re selected based on application responses and their commitment to STEM integration and leadership in the district. The academy has three levels, and members meet monthly.

Level 1 is for teachers interested in STEM but who lack the background. Participants learn the basics of STEM thinking and talking, engineering innovation, community partnerships and cultural consciousness.

Level 2 attendees come with a large amount of STEM knowledge and a hunger for more. These teachers work throughout the year on true STEM integration. Participants receive a grant to plan a STEM experience for their students. This can be a guest speaker, assembly or a field trip. Level 2 members have taken their students roller skating to learn about force and motion and to the Saint Louis Science Center to learn about planetary science.

Level 3 is the top tier of the STEM Academy. These members take part in a capstone project that integrates STEM and that is shared with other teachers. The focus of this level is to plan a project for their students. Each member receives $500 for their project, along with one-on-one coaching and guidance from their STEMpact facilitators. This school year, one teacher focused on STEM careers and was given a grant to purchase picture books to inspire her students to explore professions that are STEM related.
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It’s mid-February and a handful of teachers are working with LEGOS at tables in the Central Office board room. This is a makeup date courtesy of the winter weather. Those taking part are from Level 1 and Level 2. The evening is all about LEGO’s in the classroom. Barbara Pener, a STEMpact project coordinator who oversees the St. Charles STEM IQ team is leading the session. She said the St. Charles STEM IQ Leadership model has generated great success in building true STEM educators, and embracing a STEM growth mindset.

“They have made the transition from STEM being reserved for gifted, science or math classrooms to full integration across the curriculum,” she said. “They operated with the expressed intention of transforming educators to be STEM-capable and STEM master teachers, knowing that it would result in a greater impact on their student population for years to come.”

Settlemoir is grateful for Pener’s help and WashU’s partnership. Without, it she said the academy would never have gotten off the ground. Adams concurs. She said Pener was instrumental in developing and maintaining the academy.

“She spends countless hours planning with us to ensure that we are providing top notch professional development,” Adams said.  “Our teachers really love and respect her, and we love partnering with her. She pushes our thinking, challenges the status quo, and asks us questions that hold us accountable to our plan.”

After every session, participants are given classroom takeaways. These vary from LEGO kits to Ozobots to makerspace kits. Settlemoir said the takeaway is something a teacher would have done the evening before and can immediately take and do in their classroom.

We wanted it to be very hands-on and we wanted it to be something teachers can integrate the very next day, that’s kind of our philosophy for STEM Academy,” Settlemoir said.

Katie Frauen, a 4th-grade special education teacher who is in Level 1, applied for the academy after hearing a co-worker rave about it. Frauen hasn’t been disappointed. In fact, she’s already implementing strategies in her classroom.

“STEM can be a great tool to use with students to teach social skills. They love the hands-on work and real-world application. I am getting more than I ever thought I would get out of STEM Academy.

Pete Johnson, a K-4 special education teacher who is in Level 2, applied for the academy because he was looking for ways to add more hands-on content for his students that was enriching and engaging. He was quickly sold on the academy idea. He said the experience has changed the way he looks at everything he does. Now, he includes more titles and books with female and minority faces. Not so that his female or minority students can see themselves, but so that the Caucasian students can see others being successful and STEM-capable. Another important takeaway – he’s having more conversations connecting learning to careers and future opportunities.
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“Too often we look at STEM as something for enrichment, and we know that that is not the case,” Adams explained. “We need all kids involved in this. We need all kids to be ready for those STEM careers that are out there.”

Now two years into the leadership academy, she is pleased with the results she’s seeing.

“Our data has shown that what we are doing is working and is impacting student achievement. I think we’re succeeding because of the passion of our teachers. They want to do great things for our students,” she said.

It is expected that academy members will complete all 3 levels of STEM planning and integration training. After successfully completing level 3, members will be SCSD certified as a STEM Master Teacher Leader for the district. So far, 60 teachers have matriculated through the academy.

May said the St. Charles STEM IQ initiative is a model that STEMpact facilitators can share with other school districts, helping them tailor it to their needs. She said it’s a great example of how partnerships with enthusiastic and thoughtful districts and teachers can improve the outlook for the next generation.