We Put STEM First — And This Is What Happened [Opinion]

In the five years since rolling out a STEM-centric curriculum with a career prep component, this administrator has seen his students’ engagement and achievement grow. Learn more about how one high school is getting kids on the path to jobs.

Having been in education for two decades, I have worked in some incredible schools alongside some extraordinary educators.

But it wasn’t until I started at Aviation Academy that I realized the power of STEM (a group of fields encompassing science, technology, engineering, and math) to change schools for the better.

Aviation Academy is a magnet program at Denbigh High School in Virginia, which supplements a typical ninth-to-12th-grade curriculum with classes in aircraft mechanics and engineering (among others). Unlike standard high school fare, these classes aren’t held in rooms with chalkboards; they take place at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.

When I first got the job as program director at Aviation Academy five years ago — before we implemented the new STEM program — I noticed many opportunities for improvement. While I found the teachers to be true professionals in every sense of the word, and the school’s resources and equipment to be complementary to the curricula in place, the program as a whole was fragmented.

The Problems

With the exception of the occasional field trip, there were no interdisciplinary units connecting lessons from core classes with those from career and technical education classes. There were other problems, too.

Students took skills-based courses that were not aligned to the standards of specific professions; teachers and administrators did not regularly update curricula and lesson plans to reflect the rapid changes happening in various industries; and materials and resources were somewhat outdated. Despite their participation in career prep classes, kids didn’t seem to be aware of the vast number of jobs they would be able to pursue upon graduating from high school.

Soon, teachers and I began to discuss the fact that many students were not able to master basic lessons on a consistent basis. This was evident in almost every subject area, and even noticeable among our highest-achieving students.

The Plan

At that time, aviation elective courses were not located within consistent or coherent pathways. Our partnerships with local businesses were similarly disjointed, and kids tended only to stay after school for academic tutoring (there were no clubs). Teachers were doing their best, but it was evident that our students needed to take ownership of their learning.

That’s when I realized it was time to create a vision — and a plan to match it. We needed to refresh our existing core beliefs, but we also needed to keep up with current times. We sat down to discuss making a huge change, one that would mark the beginning of a new era in our school. This plan would revitalize our mission, and more importantly, give students the chance to take learning into their own hands. We began to discuss STEM subjects, and more specifically, the ways in which emphasizing studies in these fields would benefit our school community. Our idea at the time was to change nearly everything — to shift our means of education from traditional teacher-centric lectures to student-led, personalized learning. This new mindset took a lot of getting used to, and launching the new program proved even more challenging.

We started by identifying several components that would take advantage of our existing infrastructure: acquiring new technology and equipment to allow for additional student workstations, replacing worksheets with opportunities for project-based learning, connecting career and technical education to actual professional training (in four distinct aviation-related pathways), and introducing interdisciplinary lessons.

Students also had a role in the overhaul. Our kids needed to refine their existing skill sets and augment their education and experience with instruction in making cover letters and portfolios, interviewing, applying for grants and scholarships — some of which they would work on while earning college credit. This new rigor would enable our students to maximize all parts of their education and prepare them for higher education or the workforce — or both.

The Results

Slowly, we began to see minor changes.

It wasn’t until my second year, for example, that we were able to have two students participate in internships in a given semester. Over time, we’ve expanded the number from two to about fifteen every year.

Academically speaking, some of our veteran teachers could not initially grasp the new STEM focus. Our aviation elective teachers are professionals who hold certifications in fields like flight instruction, power-plant maintenance, and airframe repair. Because they had come to teaching as second careers, they were, by and large, not accustomed to delivering lessons in new and different ways.

These instructors were used to being in the center of their classrooms going through their lessons rather than letting students take control of learning. Instead of lecturing, computer teachers now work with students to upgrade donated machines, and piloting teachers observe kids as they learn to chart their own courses.

This change was a slow one, but also a positive one, as instructors gradually became mentors and partners of teenagers exploring new ideas.

Academics

Over the past five years, the sense of pride coming from students has grown as more and more of them do amazing work in our aviation elective. At the same time, our standardized test scores began to rise. (I can’t claim that this change was due solely to the school’s STEM commitment, but I would at least posit a connection between STEM and student engagement and, in turn, rising scores.) Our STEM-centric overhaul has enabled us to gain momentum in getting our students ready for the 21st-century workplace.

I’ll be the first to admit that we’re not 100 percent there yet, but increasing numbers of students seem to recognize the importance of their work. Our biggest obstacle is helping freshmen realize and understand that the potential to be successful lies with them and their own commitment to their work.

Unfortunately, many of them still think that simply memorizing material or waiting until the last minute will get them by, as may have been the case in eighth grade. As students perceive the ways in which their STEM learning builds upon previous lessons and tests their ability to think creatively, they learn key lessons for success at Aviation and beyond.

Extracurricular Activities

The new curriculum has also yielded positive results outside the classroom. As we’ve aligned classes to match state standards, the administration has worked to fuse relevant, real-world experiences to it.

For example, we partner with NASA in a program called High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH). Kids in our aviation maintenance class are working on assembling the lightest lockers possible for astronauts to use in training (and maybe even on the International Space Station). This year our students are finishing up nine lockers, a big step up from the three they’ve completed in previous years.

Other students are building an RV-12 plane through a partnership with another company called Eagle’s Nest. This project allows students from multiple pathways within Aviation Academy to apply, interview, and team with their peers to assemble an actual aircraft. They’ve spent hours on the project, and they all know that if their grades slip or if they have a disciplinary problem, they could be asked to leave the project.

In ever greater numbers, our students are participating in organizations like SkillsUSA, which encourages teens to pursue vocational training. In the past, we have had at most one or two students active, but now we are holding elections for officers and have a consistent group of 28 students participating.

What I’m most pleased about is the development of our business partnerships with the NASA Langley Research Center, Alcoa-Howmet (metal and components manufacturers), Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, and other organizations. Students are getting up-close-and-personal looks at the ways in which their work can lead to promising internships and jobs — and ultimately, change the world.

Our students are able to shadow employees at the airport, take on internships at NASA, and receive mentorship and advice from employees at Alcoa-Howmet. This firsthand experience is where I feel that students get the greatest amount of support.

Our motto, “Attitude equals altitude,” reminds students that being on a STEM learning site can help them soar to new heights. But it also reminds them gently that what they put into a task or a pursuit is what they will get back in return. By putting STEM first, we’re helping students prepare themselves for their futures, whether that means a stronger application for college or a fulfilling and fast-paced job in an exciting technical field.

Check out high schools near you that may offer specific training programs. You can also find further free advice about internships and career preparation on Noodle.

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