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Member Kudos: STEAM Laboratory, Williamston Community Schools

2019 Education Excellence Award Recipient

DashBoard, May 15, 2019

The 10 recipients of the 2019 MASB/SET SEG Foundation Education Excellence Awards are some of the greatest examples of unique and innovative public school programs in the state of Michigan. MASB has been sharing the details of each program from their applications, presented in alphabetical order by district for the last few months. This week we highlight the final 2019 awardee, the STEAM Laboratory in Williamston Community Schools.

Williamston Community School STEAM Laboratory

History/Purpose of Program: In 2015, Williamston Community Schools initiated a community task force to investigate how to promote interest in STEAM-related classes for girls in our district. Similar to research indicating a significant gap between men and women at the university and professional levels, a review of enrollment at our high school reflected an alarming discrepancy between boys and girls enrolling in elective STEAM-related classes. In our introductory robotics course, as well as our advanced placement computer science class, only one girl was enrolled.

After the completion of the district study, we concluded that the best way to reverse this trend was to focus on STEAM when students first enter school. The goal is to “hook” students on STEAM at the elementary so they continue on with that interest into the secondary level. The program started with a lot of community motivation, but no money. Williamston was listed as a financially distressed district with no discretionary funds to launch the program. Grant opportunities such as this are critical to maintaining an innovative concept that is unique for its focus on implementing engaging integrated academic content into an environment focused on 21st century skill development at the elementary level.

The elementary STEAM program began in 2016 with the conversion of an old science lab at our elementary campus. The campus consists of two elementary schools that are connected by an indoor breezeway. Consequently, all approximately 900 developmental kindergarten through fifth grade students in the district have the opportunity to utilize the space. We had the good fortune of hiring one of our former technology coordinators who had become a first grade teacher to coordinate the initiative. As there was not a blueprint for implementing a STEAM concept for such young children, we engaged in an intensive process to identify resources and effective instructional techniques. The key curricular goal was the integration of core content into an environment that allowed students to utilize those concepts in innovative ways. We also wanted the classroom to follow a more inquiry-based pedagogical process, nested in the Next Generation Science Standards framework.

Williamston Community Schools STEAM Laboratory

As one of the first districts in Michigan to adopt this philosophy of instruction, the lab has become a location where students are required to wrestle with complex concepts in a collaborative setting. Simultaneously, we initiated an extensive professional development program for teachers in our elementary buildings. Staff completed seminars in NGSS methodology, STEM consultants volunteered their time, and the business community provided guidance and material support.

The expectation for the lab was for it to be noisy, messy and engaging. We wanted all students going home excited about what they were experiencing in this innovative learning environment. Making mistakes is part of the learning process in the lab, as is using “accountable talk” as well as the free exchange of ideas with their peers. No small task in an elementary setting! As the district was not able to provide material resources due to its financial situation, the lab started with materials donated by parents. Over the last couple of years, we have successfully partnered with our local business community, which has invested in the concept. Doing so requires a belief in the vision and confidence in the district that it can effectively implement the concept. This strong partnership between the schools, parents and business leaders is one of the most significant positive outcomes of the project.

Our community better understands the vision of the district and has found a practical way to support it. There is a collective belief in the benefits of an elementary STEAM program as well as an understanding that the return on investment will not come right away, but over time. Two years in the making, the lab is truly a unique learning environment for elementary students that will continue to expand in scope and ambition. 

Williamston Community Schools STEAM Laboratory

Program Impact: The primary goal of the elementary STEAM initiative was to introduce students to engaging and integrated learning opportunities that will enhance their understanding of core curriculum. The district aimed to provide its youngest students with authentic lessons that deepened conceptual understanding and the development of 21st century skill sets. These benefits would connect to student growth in their core classes as well as improved outcomes on various standardized metrics. Additionally, we wanted students to develop a genuine interest in STEAM-related concepts and potential career paths. Finally, we sought out to close the gender gap between male and female enrollment in STEAM classes at our high school.

Williamston wants a culture that expects girls are fully immersed in subjects such as engineering, programming and graphic design. We want this to become the "new normal." Secondly, the concept has strengthened the connection between the elementary schools and the community. By engaging a diverse array of stakeholders in the research and decisionmaking processes, the STEAM lab has increased the attention placed on elementary education in the district, all in positive ways. We have more donors, more volunteers and outstanding participation during STEAM lab events. Perhaps the greatest advocates for the initiative have been our students. We have received constant feedback of students reporting to parents they want a robotics kit for their birthday or that they want to be an "inventor" when they grow up. The interest in the community continues to grow; the lab is a very visible learning environment that students and parents can easily identify as a positive addition to the overall educational experience in our elementary buildings.  

How Grant Will Be Used: The elementary STEAM lab was designed to be a long-term program. We opened the space with the understanding that it would take time to perfect the concept and collect the resources required to push the program to its full potential. Our primary focus since it opened has been professional development for our staff (as noted above) and allocating time for collaborative planning. We want the STEAM lab teacher's instruction to compliment the methodology and concepts being utilized in core classrooms. Ensuring this happens takes a considerable amount of preparation and strategic planning by teachers and administrators. The development of the integrated curriculum is a major undertaking that will continue into the foreseeable future.

Simultaneously, we are looking for every grant opportunity to add resources to the lab. As noted previously, the precarious financial situation of the district has not allowed for operational dollars to be allocated. Our district does not have a culture of waiting for something to happen; we are proactive and go out looking for opportunities to support important initiatives. This grant is a prime example of this philosophy. The $2,500 from this grant would be allocated for the acquisition of an elementary-level Lego Robotics set to provide programming opportunities as well as a water table for science experiments. Perhaps, more importantly than the money associated with this grant, is the recognition that comes with it. We feel strongly that this innovative classroom that reaches 900+ students each week is in keeping with the type of program SET SEG and MASB are searching to identify through this grant opportunity. The grant focuses on programs that are changing lives and impacting the future aspirations of students. This criterion is exactly aligned with the purpose of the elementary STEAM lab.

Williamston identified a significant gap in the needs of students, both in the present and the future, and took an innovative approach to addressing that circumstance. While the program is still being refined, there is no doubt that our youngest students are actively engaged in STEAM concepts, applying what they are learning in their core content classrooms and having a lot of fun doing it. Ask our elementary students what their favorite class is, the answer is almost always STEAM.

Program Coordinator: Sean Ferguson, STEAM Teacher, ferguss@gowcs.net

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