State Board of Education awards STEM designations to 3 Southern Utah schools

Photo by Ableimages/Getty Images; St. George News

ST. GEORGE — In an effort to develop strong instruction for K-12 students in Utah that will prepare them for college and careers, as well as enlighten members of the public seeking quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics education experiences, the Utah State Board of Education — in partnership with the Utah STEM Action Center — approved 19 public schools last week for the Utah STEM School Designation program.

Three of the schools are located in Southern Utah: Crimson View Elementary and Sunset Elementary schools in St. George and Hurricane Elementary School in Hurricane.

The Utah STEM School Designation program defines STEM education:

The intentional inclusion of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and their associated practices, to create a student-centered learning environment in which students investigate, engineer solutions to problems, and construct evidence-based explanations of real-world phenomena.

The STEM Action Center was created as a result of legislation passed and signed into law during the 2013 Utah legislative session. The legislation provides for the STEM Action Center to designate schools as STEM schools, “where the schools have agreed to adopt a plan of STEM implementation in alignment with criteria set by the State Board of Education and the board.”

The full application and review process occurred during the 2015-16 school year. Sarah Young, STEM liason with the STEM Action Center, said that of the 42 schools that expressed an interest in the fall of 2015, 26 submitted completed applications and 19 were ultimately approved based on stakeholder review. Stakeholders included teachers, principals, district leaders and community council members.

Each application was evaluated using the program’s Ten Dimensions of STEM School Designation:

  • Curriculum
  • Leadership
  • Assessment
  • Professional Learning
  • Teaching
  • Student Engagement and Equity
  • Community
  • Facilities
  • Strategic Alliances
  • Advancement and Sustainability

According to a press release from the STEM Action Center, the 19 schools that were approved “demonstrated their excellence in STEM education, including student project-based learning, community partnerships and support for teacher professional learning.”

For the complete rubric, click here.

Photo by Scyther5/Getty Images; St. George News
Photo by Scyther5/Getty Images; St. George News

As part of the evaluation, each school was awarded with various STEM designations based on the school’s level of implementation for all of the proposed elements: bronze, silver, gold and platinum, platinum being the highest.

In Southern Utah, Sunset Elementary School received a bronze designation, Hurricane Elementary School received a gold designation and Crimson View Elementary School received a platinum designation. Only one other Utah school received a platinum designation: Beehive Science and Technology Engineering Academy in Sandy.

“I think what really distinguishes our STEM schools is that they have chosen STEM education as their lens for schoolwide education,” Young said. “We have a lot of folks who do great STEM work in their classroom — be it a science classroom, a math classroom or an engineering classroom. … In a school level, the whole community has agreed that this is the lens that they think meets the needs of their kids.”

These schools are using STEM and problem-based learning to guide their full-school programs, Young said, including after-school programs and clubs and looking for interdisciplinary learning between humanities subjects and STEM subjects.

Young said that being STEM really is a community effort.

No one discipline can do it alone, and no one group can do it alone,” she said

As part of the application process, the STEM Action Center asked schools for evidence of their community’s “buy-in,” including contributions and participation from parents and community partners such as clubs, nonprofits and industry.

“It’s looking at how we leverage the expertise that comes from all of these different stakeholders to create a comprehensive STEM learning environment.”

This is the pilot year for the STEM School Designation program. The STEM Action Center expects even more applications for the next round of consideration, Young said, which will open June 21 at the STEM Best Practices conference in Sandy.

“We’re really excited now that we have our first set of schools with the award to hopefully build on that momentum and get other schools involved too,” Young said.

Crimson View Elementary School – Platinum designation

Tiffany Porter, learning coach and STEM coordinator for Crimson View Elementary School, said they are very excited about the school’s designation.

Porter said part of their success is the implementation and emphasis of “21st century learning skills” in lessons. These skills include collaboration, critical thinking and communication. This latter skill is one area where the community partners come into place.

“They have to communicate their ideas,” Porter said, “not only to their peers but to a group of people, including sometimes our partners, like students at Dixie State or the City of St. George.”

Porter also listed the faculty at Dixie State University as partners, as well as the Bureau of Land Management, Dixie Power, Foster Grandparent Program, Virgin River Program, Washington County Water Conservancy District and Zion National Park. She also credited the PTO with the school’s success.

We couldn’t do half of what we do without them.”

Another of the 21st century learning skills is creativity.

“This means letting the kids explore their own ideas and be creative with the solutions in solving the problems that we face in our daily lives,” Porter said.

Some of these solutions have dealt with projects that take a science concept and incorporate engineering, such as studying the water cycle and then researching and designing a water filter. Students go through the engineering design cycle, including addressing any problems in design.

Synsepalum dulcificum, more commonly known as "miracle fruit," October 2010, location not specified | Photo by Hamale Lyman, St. George News
Synsepalum dulcificum, more commonly known as “miracle fruit,” October 2010, location not specified | Photo by Hamale Lyman, St. George News

“Then they try it again,” Porter said. “They’re always problem solving.”

One project that also includes community partners is the school greenhouse. Crimson View has partnered with Dixie Regional Medical Center to grow “miracle fruit” for cancer patients.

“For patients going through chemotherapy, food tastes like metal or something,” Porter said. “If they eat this fruit, it makes the food taste better, so we are growing fruit for them (Dixie Regional) and donating it to their cancer patients as soon as it gets ripe.”

Read more: Crimson View Elementary celebrates opening of new greenhouse

Hurricane Elementary- Gold designation

Hurricane Elementary School Principal Travis Wilstead said his school has also done considerable training over the past few years to incorporate science in a cross-curricular sense. This includes starting to incorporate science core curriculum topics into instruction as early as first grade, as opposed to waiting for fourth and fifth grades when the state actually tests students on the subject.

Hurricane Elementary has a designated STEM teacher, Wilstead said. The classroom teachers share what they are teaching with this teacher — Paul Tauilliili, or “Dr. T” — and he expands on those lessons.

“They (students) learn the basics, the foundations and do some minor experiments in the classroom,” Wilstead said, “and then they’ll go with him, and he’ll spend as much as six weeks doing an in-depth project or learning on specific science or math concepts.”

Wilstead gave the example of students constructing their own anemometers to measure wind velocity and comparing their results with the school’s weather station. Students also built balloon-powered cars as part of a study of friction.

“Part of his lesson included the design of the car,” Wilstead said, “and then he included aesthetics.”

One female student spent a lot of time making her car “the cutest,” he said, but ultimately her car traveled the least distance.

“She was kind of upset,” Wilstead said, “and as Dr. T talked to her about what they learned about friction and drag and force, she came to the realization that some of her ‘cute’ on the car was holding back some of the energy that the balloon produced.”

Tauilliili also works with the Lego robotics students in fifth grade to build and program basic robots. “Lego Robotics” in itself is a big program at Hurricane Elementary, Wilstead said, with six teams that compete in regional Lego leagues.

The program has been developed by the school’s Title I site coordinator, Matthew Lowe. Lowe was recently recognized by the STEM Action Center as a “STEM innovator.”

Lowe was the site lead associated with creating Hurricane Elementary’s full STEM School application, Wilstead said, and she has worked with him quite extensively. She said:

He is an incredibly impressive individual who walks the walk and not just talks the talk. For example, aside from doing a lot of the administrative duties, he runs the robotics club …. That’s not a part of his job responsibilities, but he does it because he realizes the difference that it makes for the students and the community, and he’s committed to that vision.

As with Crimson View, Wilstead also listed a partnership with Dixie State University through which several teachers are getting their STEM endorsement. He also mentioned Rosenberg Associates, a consulting engineering firm in St. George, as a partner.

“They have given us money to help sponsor us and provided employees to come judge the science fair,” Wilstead said. “It’s my understanding that Rosenberg Associates paid those employees for their time while they were here judging our science fair. We’ve always been grateful to them for their support.”

Sunset Elementary- Bronze designation

Sunset Elementary School Principal Anthony Horrocks said education is getting much better at bridging the gap between what’s happening within the walls of the school to making it more meaningful to the students outside in the world.

Photo by Choreograph/Getty Images; St. George News
Photo by Choreograph/Getty Images; St. George News

“Most people when they hear STEM, all they think of is a school that teaches science, technology, engineering and math,” Horrocks said, “which really is no different than the majority of the schools in the nation. … It’s much more than that. It’s the way that kids problem-solve.”

Examples of projects students have worked on at Sunset Elementary include grade-level problem-solving through building bridges, engineering structures to protect eggs dropped from various heights and a week dedicated to coding projects on computers.

Many Sunset Elementary teachers are also working toward their STEM endorsement from Dixie State University, Horrocks said, but the school is still working on developing their other community partnerships. He said:

We’ve had Ace Hardware jump in with things, mainly with supplies, but our next step as a school is to get businesses to understand that it’s more than just giving the school things. That’s great too, but it’s a connection with them to actually come in and show what they do and get the kids aware of how the skills they’re learning now really relate.

Horrocks expressed gratitude, however, to parents in the community who have come into the school and shared what they do in their jobs and what type of college readiness they needed to prepare for those jobs.

“The kids have become a lot more aware that the things they are learning actually translate into these other areas.”

Even though Sunset Elementary still has work to do, Horrocks said, the overall atmosphere is excitement.

“We’re thrilled at what these students are getting the opportunity to do and become aware of at such a young age,” he said. “These students are so capable. They just need to be given the opportunities and the mechanisms to meet those expectations.”

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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