Pasco School Board wants to see if new schools can focus around STEM, STEAM programs

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMarch 30, 2013 

The two new elementary schools and early learning center to be built in Pasco in the next two years won't look different from any other school.

But how students are taught in their classrooms could be.

The Pasco School Board wants district staff to look into designing the focus of the three new schools around a STEM or STEAM educational model.

That means that all subjects -- including art, language arts, history -- would be taught through the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) approach. In a STEAM program, the "A" stands for the arts.

"It's not just learning to paint, but how to make your own paint," explained Deidre Holmberg, principal at the STEM-focused Delta High School in Richland. "It's not just learning to play the oboe but how the oboe works."

Holmberg is leaving Delta on July 1 to take the lead in planning Pasco's new elementary schools.

STEM education already is being heavily integrated at the high school and middle school levels in the Mid-Columbia and elsewhere in the state and nation.

But STEM hasn't been common at the grade-school level.

This year, teachers at Pasco's Virgie Robinson and Emerson elementary schools worked to develop the new curriculum. Elementary science teachers teach lessons based on kits developed by the district that don't usually connect with other subjects.

Officials said preparing students to be highly trained and savvy workers in high-tech fields can't necessarily wait until high school.

"It's the future work force," Holmberg said. "We need to make sure our kids have the highest paying jobs."

If the district decides to go with a new curriculum at the new schools, administrators will have to move quickly, as the first of the schools -- at Road 52 and Powerline Road -- is set to open for the 2014-15 school year. The other two will open in 2015.

"We're going to be on a tight timeline," said Superintendent Saundra Hill.

Voters approved a $46.8 million bond to build the schools in February. The voter-approved dollars also will pay for an early learning center at Road 60 and Sandifur Parkway in west Pasco, and a new elementary school next to Whittier Elementary School in east Pasco.

Hill and board President Sherry Lancon said the idea of instituting a STEM-focused curriculum at the three schools was brought up during a school board study session last fall.

Initial discussions will start this spring and will move into full gear when Holmberg moves to her new post, said Hill.

Holmberg said she plans to gather a group of employees and citizens to study the issues and make recommendations.

Instituting such an approach at a new school from the start will take some work, district officials said. Holmberg, while focused on getting her seniors ready for graduation, said she already is thinking about how elementary schools could be the same or different from traditional schools.

"It's rethinking the gymnasium," she said. "Why couldn't we have a math-nasium?"

It also hasn't been decided whether enrollment will be elective, such as at Delta High, or based on an attendance area.

Delta High, which has 340 students and will graduate its first class of seniors this spring, is jointly operated by the Pasco, Kennewick and Richland school districts. Students from each district apply to attend the school, which already has been recognized by the state and private industry for preparing students for future careers in scientific and technical fields.

Other Mid-Columbia schools also are instituting STEM and STEAM curriculums on some level.

In Richland, the alternative school Three Rivers HomeLink has a STEAM program.

Two seventh-grade teachers at Pasco's Ochoa Middle School recently were recognized by the Washington State STEM Education Foundation, in part, for their work in developing STEM curriculum for their grade level.

Finley Elementary School south of Kennewick is in its second year of instituting a STEM curriculum, and several of its teachers recently were awarded Crystal Apple Awards for their work.

And an electric guitar manufacturing curriculum in the Kiona-Benton City and Richland districts also has sparked great student interest.

"It's just an evolution of the way of teaching," Lancon said.

"We want Pasco students to be college and career ready for the jobs of the future," she said. "We believe an innovative STEM or STEAM educational foundation will give our kids a leg up in competing for those high paying jobs."

Even with a STEM-focused curriculum, the schools still will have to meet state-mandated educational standards, meaning the Common Core State Standards in math and language arts and the Next Generation Science Standards, which are being developed by several science organizations and states to better prepare students for scientific careers.

Joy Reilly, president of the Pasco Educators Association, said that while there has been some discussion about a STEM curriculum at the three new schools, "it is just on the ground floor."

But it would be an innovative approach to instruction and has produced good results at Delta High when preparing students, she said.

"Students and teachers love what is happening there," Reilly said.

Tom Yount, president of the board for the Washington State STEM Education Foundation, said that while the organization hasn't developed an official position on spreading STEM to the lower grade levels, doing so has merit.

Washington is in the top 10 in the U.S. in creating STEM-related jobs, yet produces among the fewest workers to fill them, he said.

"Everything we can do at all levels is needed," he said, adding the foundation would support any effort by Pasco to put STEM in elementary school classrooms.

Holmberg said a STEM-focused elementary school could be markedly different from what many consider a traditional one. That could lead to concerns from some in the community, such as where education in the arts would fit in.

She and Yount said the arts still are important, if perhaps taught differently, in a STEM environment.

"It's an important part of creative learning," Yount said.

However, Holmberg said it's important that schools prepare children to be productive as adults, and that means teaching them 21st century skills and characteristics, such as being innovative and flexible problem solvers.

Yount said that part of the success of STEM and STEAM curricula in the Mid-Columbia isn't just their emphasis on scientific and technical skills.

As Delta High has shown, it's also project-based and integrative learning that gives students a deeper understanding -- something that shouldn't be difficult to tie into elementary education.

"I think it'll be just fine; I think it'll be great," he said.

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