A new kind of school
The U of M joined forces with a community to build a school that integrates the arts with science, technology, engineering, and math.
April 29, 2014
In a room that looks like shop class for the 21st century, about 30 fifth graders in goggles work intently on prototypes for tiny boats. Girls and boys move from workbenches with vices to belt sanders, scroll saws, and drill presses. They measure and eyeball the models emerging from their chunks of pale purple foam core, calculate, and make adjustments. Several students hover near the teacher, Kaylene Jensen, waiting for feedback and listening intently. Near the floor-to-ceiling window is an Aqua Track, a narrow channel filled with water, where their final projects will eventually set sail, subject to another phase of observation, data collection, and analysis.
The classroom is a design lab at I. J. Holton Intermediate School in Austin, MN, which opened in September. The new school for all 725 fifth- and six-graders in the growing district is designed around a curriculum that focuses on the integration of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—plus the district’s long-standing dedication to the arts. In Austin, STEM + arts = STEAM.
The STEAM focus is apparent throughout the building. Exposed girders and structural systems display its engineering. Feet and meter marks travel down the central corridor floor. Inspired by the wetland outside the school, blues and greens carry the theme of water and flora through hallways and classrooms.
One of the questions that principal Jean McDermott hears is whether engineering is too hard for elementary kids. Wouldn’t it be better at the high school level? Her answer is a simple no.
“Fifth and sixth grade is when we [schools] start losing kids,” she replies. “They come to kindergarten all full of creativity and energy…so what do we need to do to keep that spark going? We’re giving them a new tool.”
“What we teach is the design process,” she continues, “and it’s not too early for that. Kids need to have these kinds of skills and processes for almost everything.”
Preparing for growth
Five years ago, a new school for Austin’s fifth and sixth-graders was not on anybody’s radar. But the district was growing. McDermott had only recently helped to open the district-wide kindergarten center with a class of 330, up from 250 in the years running up to that point. The diversity of the population was unprecedented in Austin, and a growing percentage qualified for free and reduced lunch.
In 2010, the district conducted a demographic study and a facilities survey to look at options, from remodeling to reorganization. The idea to build a new school for all fifth- and sixth-graders emerged as one option, taking fifth-graders from the four existing grade schools and sixth-graders from the junior high.
Building a new school around STEAM was the next step. Austin is the hometown of Hormel Foods and many other companies and organizations that rely heavily on science and technology. It also has a strong value for the arts: Austin Public Schools (APS) is part of Minnesota’s Big Nine conference of schools that sponsor what may be the longest-running music festival in the state.
The opportunity to build a school where students would not have to choose between arts and sciences struck a chord.
The next step was developing the school’s curriculum and equipping its staff. Austin’s STEAM team began with the district’s educational services director, U alumnus John Alberts ’99, and Principal McDermott. The two immediately organized a STEAM advisory committee of 15-20 community partners, whose input began to directly affect the emerging character of the school.
They also turned to the U of M. The College of Education and Human Development designed an innovative two-year professional development partnership tailored for the STEAM school in Austin and delivered on site. U staff and faculty members began regular drives to Austin. That support continued after the school opened in September.
One of the 30-foot walls in Holton School displays a giant mural that summarizes the design process: Ask. Imagine. Plan. Create. Improve. This simple framework for problem solving applies to engineering as well as art.
What distinguishes the STEAM curriculum developed at Holton School is its inquiry-based, transdisciplinary approach.
“Lots of STEM teacher preparation is focused on content, but we moved away from that,” says U associate professor of STEM education Bhaskar Upadhyay (oo-pa-de-ya), who worked with Holton’s leadership, teachers, and community partners to design the curriculum. They focused on laying a theoretical and conceptual foundation along with process, rather than focusing solely on content. “We wanted to break the content barriers so students would not experience those barriers.”
As a result, he explains, students begin to think about learning as a process of interacting and navigating between what they know based on their own experience, on one hand, and academic knowledge on the other.
"We talk about habits of mind," says Upadhyay. "STEM habits of mind and arts habits of mind are very similar—curiosity, persistence, collaboration, and systems thinking. When we show how these habits of mind support learning, teachers and students themselves can see that they support all subjects, and no matter what their cultural background happens to be."