Learning the STEM way

By Pat Jenkins The Dispatch Columbia Crest Elementary School's efforts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) get a lot of attention at the Ashford campus and throughout the school community. For instance, at a student assembly Nov. 25, several students were picked to explain their engineering projects. The month before, the school hosted a community performance by the Reptile Man, who treated an audience of 166 people to close looks at and hands-on encounter with reptiles, including huge snakes. The school has a Facebook page that posts ideas for family field trips and links to educational sites. And students are involved in regular activities such as maintaining compost bins and providing Columbia Crest as the home of a weather station. The state has taken notice of Columbia Crest's affinity for STEM. It's been named a 2013-14 STEM Lighthouse School in Washington. Such schools serve as "lighthouseGÇ¥ programs, providing technical assistance and advice to other schools and communities in the initial stages of creating a learning environment focused on STEM. Columbia Crest's Lighthouse distinction comes with an $18,000 grant and a banner and a plaque to be displayed in recognizition of the school's achievement. "This is the first step for Columbia Crest to establish an elementary STEM curriculum based on projects and integrated curriculum using the state Benchmarks, Common Core and Next Generation standards,GÇ¥ said Krestin Bahr, superintendent of the Eatonville School District. The Legislature designated the Lighthouse school program in 2010 as part of an overall strategy to improve STEM education in Washington. Lighthouse schools use the funds they receive from grants to help other schools make STEM advancements. Lighthouse stemmed from the need to strengthen existing STEM initiatives within the state to keep up with the demand for STEM-skilled, high-tech workers at such as Boeing and Microsoft. The non-traditional learning environments in three schools GÇô The Science and Math Institute in Tacoma, Aviation High School in Seattle, and Delta High School in the Tri-Cities area of eastern Washington - served as models for the Lighthouse program and were the first to earn Lighthouse status. In addition to serving as models, the Legislature designated these three institutions as the first Lighthouse schools. The program is administered by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. OSPI annually selects up to six schools as new models of STEM education. The schools typically have small, highly personalized learning communities, a project-based approach to instruction, and active partnerships with businesses and the local community to extend learning beyond the classroom. At Columbia Crest, volunteers worked with the state Department of Natural Resources to install the weather station in a partnership that also includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The station is part of a national network of more than 2,000 weather stations used by the agencies. The Columbia Crest installation sends information to a weather communications satellite "constantly all day long,GÇ¥ said Brad Moore, who helped set up the station. Students learn about weather patterns in their area and how to predict them by interacting with the station and its data. The latter also gives school district officials accurate information that helps with decisions on weather-related school delays or closures. Another practical learning tool at the school is a worm bin, maintained by students, that's part of a composting project for STEM purposes. The bin was donated by Dick and Paula Hopkins. Columbia Crest, which in the past year has had an enrollment of approximately 145 students, was discussed by the Eatonville School Board last year for possible closure to help the district save money. But that possibility was protested by parents of students at the school and other community members, and attention was turned to developing a STEM program. Washington Governor Jay Inslee and leaders from the state's business and education communities are pressing for STEM education for all students. Speaking in December at an annual STEM summit at Microsoft's Redmond campus, Inslee pointed to an unmet need for STEM-educated workers in technology-dependent businesses, from Microsoft to biotech startups working on new medicines. "We've made great strides in STEM education, but without further improvements and better coordination, these companies will have to look even more to other states and other countries for their workforce,'' Inslee said. "And without STEM skills, our homegrown students will be shut out from these jobs.GÇ¥ Washington STEM, a statewide non-profit organization, was an advocate for STEM-related actions by the Legislature last year. The Legislature passed, and Inslee signed into law, the STEM Education Innovation Alliance and the STEM Benchmark Report Card. Legislators also authorized Advanced Placement computer science to be counted as a science credit for high school graduation.


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