by Art Young
In just its second year, the Lewisville Independent School District’s STEM Academy, currently located at Donald Elementary, Polser Elementary and Valley Ridge Elementary, is already changing young lives. When searched on Google, the acronym “STEM” – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – has more than one billion, two hundred million online references. Clearly, many people, and especially those who are parents, are interested in finding more information about this curriculum.
LISD is home to the first STEM Schools of Excellence in Texas to be recognized by the National Institute for STEM Education and it has more nationally certified STEM teachers by the National Institute for STEM Education than any other district in the nation.A unique component to the elementary STEM Academy is the students receive instruction in engineering every day. They learn how to build, test and evaluate a robot design and they learn the fundamentals of computer programming.
A Principal Who is Passionate About STEM
For Dr. Michelle Wooten, the principal of the LISD STEM Academy at Donald Elementary, the school’s work on behalf of students is both important and personal.
“When I was going through school, I was a very good student, especially in science,” she said. “I even got some scholarships along the way. However, no teacher or counselor ever talked to me about going into the STEM fields. After I became a mom with a daughter, I became passionate about ensuring that she had no limitations.
“When I became a principal, I started researching the educational trends of the future and it was clear that technology was a critical component. From the beginning, we knew that technology was not enough. Success required great teaching along with great technology. It’s not one or the other.
“We found that this technology advance was crossing over into many other content areas and a survey showed that a STEM curriculum was overwhelmingly popular among the LISD parents and teachers. Since our school – Donald Elementary – met several of the district criteria, including having enough space for the program, we applied to be the school that would host the STEM academy. The enthusiasm for this program among our staff and teachers was obvious to all concerned and we were given the opportunity to launch the academy at our school.”
STEM Learning Starts Young
One of the many interesting aspects of the LISD STEM Academy is its focus on younger children. While it may seem overly ambitious to teach lessons about engineering or computer coding to elementary-aged students, that’s exactly what goes on at the LISD STEM Academies.
“The younger grades are where children are developing their interests, what they like and what they believe they are good at,” Dr. Wooten said. “It is never too early to start the STEM education!
“STEM is so much more than the acronym. It involves learning life skills. It teaches problem-solving, critical-thinking, collaborating and being able to appreciate multiple perspectives. Many adults are not very good at collaborating with each other or appreciating multiple perspectives. These skills, while often taken for granted, must be taught. I believe that if we did a better job of this as a society, we would probably be in a much better place.”
LISD STEM Administrator Dr. Jonas Greene, a former science teacher, agrees.
“Our vision at LISD is to provide students with opportunities for future success,” he said. “We know that many of the job opportunities that current elementary students will have will be in STEM careers. Research also shows that children decide as early as second grade what they want to be when they grow up. We wanted to expose our students to these opportunities.
“We also have a different approach than some other programs. In the state of Texas, there are learning standards for math and science, but there are no standards for engineering at the elementary level. At LISD, we have designed an engineering component into the school day. The students apply what they are learning in science and math classes on engineering lessons. Engineering becomes the context for what students are learning about science and math.”
A Scientist and Parent Looks at LISD STEM Academy
Dr. Amie Lund-Harada has first-hand knowledge about the importance of the STEM curriculum. She is a professor of biology at The University of North Texas, her husband is an engineer and they have twin daughters who were among the first students enrolled in the LISD STEM Academy.
“I work in a STEM field and I have learned that teaching young students in these subjects fosters engagement and critical-thinking. This is true even if they decide to enter a non-STEM field.
“Plus, my profession and that of my husband suggest that the opportunities for jobs in this area are increasing exponentially greater than jobs in other professions. We decided that enrolling our two children in this LISD STEM academy at a young age would help them begin to develop these critical-thinking skills.
She continued: “My girls transferred into the LISD STEM program last year, when they were in the first grade. They are now in the second grade doing exceptionally well. I have wanted my girls to be in two different classes since they were in kindergarten and both of them have flourished in this program for different reasons.
“Both of them come home talking about how much fun it is to learn. I believe this is a very important part of the STEM curriculum. Because they get to do the work in a ‘hands-on’ way, they view it as a fun activity, not just another difficult task.
“We have had exemplary teachers in both of their classrooms that were good personality matches for our girls. Ours are fraternal twins and complete opposites. Plus, the administration of the school is amazing. I love principal Wooten. We are ecstatic about the experience, but the best part is how much fun my kids are having learning.”
All Students Can Thrive in STEM
There was a time when educators and parents felt that boys and girls differed in their aptitude for science, technology, engineering and math. Those days are long gone.
Two Students Participating in STEM Activities
Dr. Wooten said: “Without quoting specific research on this topic, having a daughter and seeing the 612 students in our academy at work every day, I would argue that the only limitation between a boy and a girl is what society puts on them and what they perceive their own abilities to be. I fundamentally believe that there is no difference in aptitude between boys and girls in STEM.
“As a female principal, I am very intentional in ensuring that both genders are exposed to the life lessons that will serve them in the future. Some neuroscientists might point to differences, but as someone who sees both boys and girls responding to these lessons, it is a remarkable experience to watch them when they believe that the sky’s the limit! The students simply don’t believe that there is a boundary for what they can accomplish. And how many people can say that?
“I am often asked by parents about whether their child is a good fit for the STEM curriculum. I tell them that I don’t believe there is a wrong candidate for the STEM Academy. What our teachers are able to give to every student are simply the best educational practices. They are beneficial to every student.”
Public School vs. Alternatives
Because of her training and profession, Dr. Amie Lund-Harada is a thorough researcher. This skill served she and her husband well when they started thinking about what schools would better prepare their daughters for success in life.
“Part of our decision was driven by where we live,” she said. “Had we been in another state or another district, we may not have gone this STEM Academy route. However, I did a good deal of research when we relocated to this region in Texas and learned how the schools were scoring academically. I found that the LISD public schools are very, very good. I was extremely impressed with what I was reading about these schools. I realize that academic ratings are only one part of the formula, but even the word-of-mouth from other parents with elementary school children was very positive. I never felt like there were any deficiencies of what they are being taught in the classroom or the rate in which they are being taught.”
Dr. Wooten agrees. “When I was growing up, we didn’t really have a lot of money. In fact, I was the first member of my family to go to college, much less earn an advanced degree. I believe that public school is the ultimate equalizer. For me, it didn’t matter that we didn’t have lots of money or some socio-economic status. I had the opportunity to excel.
“It’s part of my job to evaluate the educational trends. I have to ask how we are going to evolve and change to accommodate new demands in society and remain competitive in a global market. It is crystal clear that the STEM curriculum is critical to this effort.”
Future of STEM In LISD
While only in their first year as a STEM campus, both Rachel Garrett, principal at the LISD STEM Academy at Valley Ridge and Lisa Phelps, principal at the LISD STEM Academy at Polser Elementary are excited to see the impact the STEM education will make on their students.
“We know this STEM program will impact our student’s future in incredible ways,” Polser Principal Lisa Phelps said. “Our students are learning about and practicing future ready skills they will need to be successful adults in a workforce not yet created. The first nine weeks of school have been exciting, and we have had so much fun seeing our students explore different ways of learning in our new STEM environment.”
Valley Ridge Principal Rachel Garrett added: “We are excited to be on this journey with the district. I am so thankful for our Valley Ridge staff, parents and students’ commitment to preparing for our first year as an LISD STEM Academy. Together, we made a dream become a reality.”
For the 2020-2021 school year, LISD will open a STEM Academy at Bridlewood Elementary and a STEM Academy in The Colony High School feeder pattern in the near future.