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STEM saturates all classrooms in Virginia district

STEM curriculum starts in kindergarten in Harrisonburg City Public Schools
STEM, ahoy! First-grade students at Spotswood Elementary School in Harrisonburg, Virginia, prepare to test the results of a STEM design challenge using a plastic pool of water.
STEM, ahoy! First-grade students at Spotswood Elementary School in Harrisonburg, Virginia, prepare to test the results of a STEM design challenge using a plastic pool of water.

Harrisonburg City Public Schools in Virginia incorporates a technical- and engineering-based STEM curriculum starting with kindergarten and continuing right through high school.

The nation needs more STEM-focused youths, as only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career, according to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).

The U.S. also ranks 29th in math and 22nd in science among industrialized nations, says the DOE, highlighting the need for more aggressive instruction.

Since 2011, Harrisonburg’s integrated STEM curriculum requires every K8 student to have at least four STEM-specific units per year featuring design-related, hands-on challenges ranging from creating habitats for worms to planning weather-resistant houses.

The weather-resistant house lesson, for example, involves both meteorology and engineering principles.

An in-depth lesson

Middle and high school students delve deeper into engineering and technology concepts in STEM academies, says Amy Sabarre, Harrisonburg’s K12 STEM coordinator.

“The biggest challenge is having STEM not be another siloed subject,” says Sabarre, also former director of the NASA Science, Engineering, Science and Aerospace Academy at Martinsville Middle School in Virginia.

Lessons are developed with components that can be taught in other classes. In the lesson involving the worm habitat, observational data can be plotted on a graph during math class.

Middle school students conduct engineering design challenges, such as building hovercrafts, water filtration systems and video games.

In high school, STEM is divided into two pathways—engineering/technology or math/science. Incoming ninth-graders get a taste of both pathways, taking a biology class that involves research projects and a career and technical education course that serves as an introduction to engineering and computer science. As sophomores, students then choose one of the two curricula.

Over the past five years, the district’s STEM specialists and teachers have generated a large repository of lessons.

During the curriculum’s development, Sabarre and her team co-taught with teachers. They then reviewed what worked, what didn’t, and what needed improvement.

Build your own integrated STEM curriculum

Successfully implementing an integrated STEM curriculum involves a few key steps for curriculum directors, according Sabarre:

  • Clearly define what is desired in a STEM program.
  • Find key people who understand STEM and can lead curriculum integration.
  • When creating lessons, foster collaboration between teachers, science, math and technology coordinators, as well as any STEM-specific specialists.
  • Support teachers through the development process with co-teaching and modeling—including how to teach, discuss and present lessons.
  • Provide material for lessons and experiments whenever possible.
  • Do STEM activities with teachers in class, then review what works and what doesn’t to improve.
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