How STEAM Transformed Our School's Culture

School climate and student engagement survey data showed a principal that her school's project-based learning efforts are paying off. Here she shares her experiences and lessons learned.

At Joseph R. Perry Elementary School in Huntington Beach, CA, students tell me that they want to be mathematicians and astronauts when they grow up. When we read Oh, the Places You'll Go! on Dr. Seuss Day, male and female students discussed their aspirations of being engineers, scientists, mathematicians and astronauts. This was a dramatic shift from "rock star" or "reality TV star." Our student's aspirations and their excitement for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) haven't always been this way.

Like many Title I schools, Perry Elementary has faced its share of challenges. Several years ago, our school was named a "Program Improvement School" based on our students' state test scores. About half of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunch and a large percentage of our students are English language learners. In partnership with our district office, we set about creating a rich and engaging learning environment for our students by enthusiastically embracing STEAM as a school-wide initiative.

This effort was inspired by Mr. Tony Zini, a former district teacher of the year and science/mentor teacher. We had seen student enthusiasm around the topic of science, and we all wanted to harness that enthusiasm and love of learning about science topics into other academic areas. We worked together with our incredible teaching staff and decided that we needed to move in the direction of shifting our school-wide instructional focus into one that was interdisciplinary. We wanted to teach reading, writing and mathematics through the lens of STEAM and to utilize those topics along with hands-on experiments and project-based learning opportunities to improve student achievement.

Launching our STEAM Focus School-Wide at Perry Elementary

STEAM first took root at Perry Elementary in the form of an after-school STEAM Academy program. Teachers signed up to teach in the program, and students were selected by their teachers to attend the program. Our after-school STEAM program was originally targeted to address at-risk or low-performing students. What we found through our after-school STEAM academy is that elementary-age students love hands-on and interactive STEAM activities. Children have a natural curiosity and interest, so when presented with open-ended STEAM problems, the students easily jumped into the STEAM activities and collaborated with each other. They expressed joy and confidence and found school to be fun!

We also found that our attendance in the after-school program was close to perfect. One student who came to the health office during the school day with a fever didn't want to leave early because she "didn't want to miss the fun science activities after school." The teachers that had taught in the after-school STEAM academy were full-time certified teachers during regular school hours, and they all discussed the successes they had witnessed in the after-school program.

As a result of the success of the after-school STEAM Academy at Perry with increased attendance, participation and motivation seen among student participants, the teachers unanimously decided to make the STEAM interdisciplinary integration lessons a focus of school-wide instruction during the regular school day. With the shift to school-wide project-based and hands-on learning opportunities, all students are now able to weave together and to communicate their understanding of STEAM concepts throughout the school day. Science concepts that were once taught in isolation now serve as the vehicle to enhance motivation and to increase engagement in other academic areas.

Additionally, with a continued focus on the state content standards and the need to develop and to create lessons that demonstrate students' depth of knowledge across different content areas, the STEAM program has provided another excellent opportunity for collaboration amongst teachers. Both the content standards and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) require a deep understanding and application of content knowledge. Inquiry-based practices and hands on learning experiences are also essential to quality instruction of the NGSS and content standards. We were able to re-align resources at the site level in order to support the staffing and resources necessary to align with our new STEAM focus. We also reallocated funding to support a full-time Title I/STEAM educator (Mr. Zini), and through the guidance and leadership of our Title I/STEAM educator our Perry school-wide STEAM focus has been refined to meet both the instructional needs of our educators and the academic needs of our student population.

How We Know Our STEAM Focus is Helping Students Engage with Learning

We definitely felt the excitement about STEAM, but our staff believes strongly in data-driven instruction, so we needed more than heart-warming anecdotes.

We wanted qualitative data to show us whether our focus on hands-on STEAM lessons were, in fact, making students more invested and passionate about learning. To gather this information, we turned to the Panorama Student Survey. Using the school engagement measure from the Panorama Student Survey, we asked students five key questions:

  1. How excited are you about going to your classes?
  2. In your classes, how excited are you to participate?
  3. When you are not in school, how often do you talk about ideas from your classes?
  4. How focused are you on the activities in your classes?
  5. How interested are you in your classes?

The goal was to get a clear picture of how attentive and invested students are in class, and the results were pleasing. Using Panorama's platform, our district identified that Perry Elementary has the highest level of school engagement of any of the elementary schools in the Huntington Beach City School District. Compared to elementary schools in urban areas with the same level of students with Free and Reduced Lunch Status, and using Panorama's peer benchmarks, Perry Elementary scores near the 90th percentile nationwide.

Perry Elementary's School Engagement score in Spring 2016 put the school near the 90th percentile of all schools in Panorama's national dataset.

Perry Elementary's School Engagement score in Spring 2016 put the school near the 90th percentile of all schools in Panorama's national dataset.

Our qualitative data reveals that students are more engaged and motivated and that the learning is more meaningful to them. Having a focus on STEAM has directly impacted the social-emotional, behavioral and academic achievement needs of our student population. The hands-on experiences have also proven to be very beneficial for our English language learners, as they are able to attach meaning through experiential learning opportunities. Each science standard is correlated to the state content standards that the unit addresses in mathematics and in English-language arts and English language development. Students also write in their journal regularly about their learning activities and have to support their hypotheses with evidence. Students have weekly hands-on science/STEAM activities and experiences that also incorporate research and inquiry-based learning. Teachers have the opportunity to collaborate weekly and to work together to build units of study not only with our Title I/STEAM educator but also with our full-time library media/technician. Our full-time library media/technician has provided classrooms with access to not only technological devices, but also to informational text that supports the interdisciplinary learning topics. Research projects, models, rocket launches, field trips, simulations, Family STEAM science nights, and labs show how the scientific method can be applied to everyday life. Integrating science across all curricular disciplines and content areas has increased school-wide engagement and has provided students with opportunities to address 21st century skills and competencies.

In addition to being validated by qualitative student survey measures, our efforts at Perry Elementary were also recognized by the state of California. Perry Elementary was a recipient of the Gold Ribbon Award, which recognizes schools for a model program or practice.

Lessons Learned: Building School Engagement with STEAM

For schools that might be interested in implementing a program similar to ours, here are four of the most important lesson we have learned.

1)  Deposit before you withdraw. Students have to know you love them before they will love you. This is a phrase that I use quite often. Students will work for you, if they see that you care. The school climate and the classroom environment has to be one that exudes a genuine warmth. Teachers need to bring their passion and love of learning each day and to take an interest in their students and in their learning needs.

2)  When you are looking to increase student achievement, always remember that kids want to be excited about the topic they are learning. In our experience, students love science, and they are engaged with project-based learning and hands-on/inquiry-based learning experiences that can extend to other academic content areas.

3)  Provide teachers with the right tools to help implement the curriculum. STEAM and project-based learning shouldn't be about "bringing in one more thing." Focus on larger STEAM concepts and finding areas where you are able to integrate informational text, mathematics problem solving and writing into the larger science theme. Try to arrange and to get creative so that staff can have an opportunity to collaborate and to cooperatively plan sometime during the school day.

4)  Commit to intentional learning. Sometimes schools that are socio-economically disadvantaged and/or have a high percentage of English language learners are not viewed as being strong schools, but in our case, our qualitative data would demonstrate otherwise. We have always viewed our diversity and our students as our greatest asset and strength. Our teachers have created an environment where students are invested and excited about their learning. Through the deliberate teaching of science, technology, engineering, art/design and mathematics.

At Perry Elementary, we are committed to creating the best possible climate for learning, and we are inspired to work harder by what the student feedback from Panorama has told us: Kids love school, they are engaged by their classes, and they are invested in learning.