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Online June 2015 | Volume 72
Improving Schools from Within
Learning takes off when a low-performing elementary school reinvents itself as a magnet school of engineering.
When you walk through the front door of our school, the symbols and language of engineering are everywhere. The floors are painted with colorful images of gears. The school logo includes a protractor and compass. A bulletin board showcases student "Engineering Stars" wearing white lab coats. And benches, birdhouses, and other student engineering projects are on proud display.
Seven years ago, our administrative team chose engineering as the new focus for Brentwood Elementary School and changed our name to the Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering. The district chose engineering as the focus, based on findings from several parent surveys.
The timing was right because our school, which serves about 500 students in preK through 5th grade, was struggling. Of the 120 elementary schools in North Carolina's Wake County system, we were one of the four lowest performing. Our students were only averaging from 20 to 30 percent proficient on standardized tests.
The low scores might seem surprising, given that we're located in Raleigh, near Research Triangle Park, one of the world's largest research parks and home to major technology companies like Cisco Systems, Oracle, IBM, and Verizon. With a large local population of highly educated and well-to-do workers, you might expect our school to be full of high-achieving students.
But our story is different. About 75 percent of Brentwood students come from economically disadvantaged homes. About 60 percent are Hispanic, and 40 percent speak English as a second language. At the time we made this change, many of our students were reading below grade level.
Besides low test scores, our school faced other challenges. One was the difficulty of communicating with parents because of the language barrier. It was also a challenge to get parents involved in school activities because many of them worked two or three jobs, which also doesn't leave much time for helping kids with homework.
We needed to help our staff adjust to the magnet school format. Not every teacher was happy with our focus on engineering. Many doubted that the subject was age-appropriate. "Are you kidding? You want me to do engineering with an elementary student?" one teacher exclaimed. Others didn't feel confident in their own abilities. The idea of teaching in a context of engineering is often daunting (Lachapelle, Hertel, Shams, San Antonio-Tunis, & Cunningham, 2014); elementary teachers take little coursework in engineering in college (Fantz & Katsioloudis, 2011); and teacher preparation often focuses more on teaching methods than on science content.
One of the first steps we took was to collaborate with Elizabeth Parry, an educator and consultant at North Carolina State University's College of Engineering. As the Brentwood STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) coordinator, I had previously worked with Liz on engineering-related programs; this preexisting relationship was crucial to providing teachers with the information, training, tools, and confidence they would need to begin implementing instruction in engineering. Liz urged us to adopt Engineering is Elementary, a new curriculum from the National Center for Technological Literacy at the Museum of Science, Boston.
One advantage of the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum is that it was designed to support learning for students from all populations (Cunningham & Lachapelle, 2014). The fact that it was research-based made teachers more open to considering it. And it was easy for teachers to get started because kits with all the needed materials were available. We could tailor instruction to our goals for each grade because the units were designed to integrate with the science topics commonly taught in the elementary grades. The units also connect to math, literacy, and social studies (Cunningham & Berger, 2014), making them easy to fit into a school day.
EiE's five-step engineering design process became the core of our school's vision statement. As Brentwood engineers, we
As we worked on implementation with our teachers, we stressed foundational skill development: learning the five-step engineering design process, working productively in teams, and keeping engineering notebooks to document student learning. In the lower grades, we worked with the teachers to develop engineering projects based on literacy themes. Once teachers became more comfortable with the idea of engineering in elementary school and with the engineering design process, they began to create their own integrated lessons.
I've seen remarkable changes since we put the program in place. Our entire schedule is built around the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) block. Every school day, we dedicate at least 45 minutes to science or social studies. That's different from most schools, which often make literacy the focus of scheduling and give science and social studies lower priority. Our decision to protect the STEM blocks—there are no pullouts during this time—means no student ever misses out on STEM activities for other instructional opportunities.
We chose the various activities—both EiE's engineering design challenges and other STEM activities we've implemented—because they connect to real-world events. That really grabs our kids' attention. For example, one EiE unit starts with a storybook about American Indian children in the Pacific Northwest of the United States who help a team of engineers clean up an oil spill. As our students were reading this story and working on their own strategies for removing spilled oil from a model estuary, the North Carolina legislature voted on offshore drilling. The teacher made the connection, and now the kids are taking the oil spill activities one step further and writing to the governor. Our students may not travel the world, but we can bring the world to them.
Our students do some of their engineering activities in their home classrooms, but we've also set up a dedicated STEM lab—our makerspace. Engineering activities can involve a lot of materials, a lot of preparation time for teachers, and sometimes a bit of a mess—for example, when students experiment with different ways for making mortar to build walls or test different processes for making modeling clay from flour and water. Having a dedicated space for these activities is helpful. I see every student from every grade routinely come through the space.
From the start, we've worked hard to make our teachers feel more comfortable and confident about teaching engineering. Liz facilitates both EiE and general engineering professional development workshops for the district. One year, she'll deliver a day of professional development on how to incorporate the engineering design process into daily instruction or use STEM notebooks with students to document learning. Another year, she'll work with individual grade levels to plan integrated lessons that include the engineering fundamentals.
Professional development is embedded and ongoing at Brentwood because teachers team teach with me in the makerspace or classroom. I work with them to develop new activities and ensure they have the resources they need. I also partner with any teachers who need extra support.
For example, our 2nd grade team recently added a veteran teacher who is new to Brentwood and to engineering. The first time she was scheduled to teach an EiE unit, I helped her set up the materials and then taught several lessons while she observed. The students were studying weather, so we used the EiE kit that has students create a parachute that would be suitable for an atmosphere much thinner than that of the earth. This engineering unit ties into their science content about wind resistance; students take on the role of aerospace engineers and test different materials and situations before making a decision on their design.
The teacher and I decided to tie in the Mars rover, Curiosity, to engage students with a global, authentic connection. Throughout the unit, the teacher saw how purposeful grouping and exploration of materials enhanced student understanding. The next step involved team teaching, in which the teacher and I led the class together. This prepared her to teach the engineering lessons independently.
Another new teacher felt confident teaching engineering lessons from the start, so I worked with her on ways to integrate engineering into her math and social studies classes. Through collaborative planning time, the teacher could see how some intentional changes to her lesson plans could create engineering challenges in her classroom.
We've started holding activity nights for parents and guardians that revolve around hands-on STEM activities. This year, we had Engineering Night in October, Science Night in November, Math Night in February, and Technology Showcase in May. The events give families a chance to see what their children are doing in school, and we also share some ways to help their kids at home. Our goal is to communicate with parents consistently and respectfully and to send the message that their children matter to us. We also share the students' accomplishments: They can engineer, they can solve problems, and they're smart and capable. This approach helps parents feel more comfortable with the school.
Since we've made the change to an engineering focus, we've really seen learning take off for our English language learners. Engineering activities are hands-on, so even if students can't speak fluently about what they're doing, they can show what they know.
Engineering also integrates well with English language arts because each unit starts with a storybook that shows a child solving a problem through engineering. For example, in one story, a girl is always forgetting to feed the animals on her farm. She collaborates with a neighbor, who's an electrical engineer, to design an alarm that will go off each time the food trough is empty. Students then have to address the same challenge—they must figure out how to create such an alarm.
Students can read the storybooks themselves, or the teacher can read aloud. A few years back, some of our 5th graders read and recorded several EiE storybooks. Now other students can listen to the stories whenever they want. The initiative boosts literacy skills both for the students who listen to the books and those doing the reading and recording. (See the selection of 10 recorded stories by Brentwood students.)
After we made engineering our focus, Brentwood saw a steady rise in standardized test scores. We're now one of the top 10 elementary schools in the district in terms of growth in our science scores—they've almost tripled, from 19 to 60 percent of students proficient. For other subjects, we've met (and, in some cases, exceeded) the expected growth set by the state for each of the past four years. We project that we'll continue to grow and meet math and science target scores.
These results separate us from schools with similar scores because just four years ago we were one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the district. We're still in the bottom 12, but we're not in the bottom 4 anymore. With continued improvement, we expect to move up and out of the bottom 12 this year.
In addition, the STEM survey that our 5th graders take each year reveals that our students express a confidence in math and science similar to that of other elementary students in the district. Students had a 13 percent greater understanding of engineering and its beneficial impact in the world, and 78 percent expressed an interest in an engineering career, compared with an average of 62 percent in STEM elementary schools in other districts.
Test scores and survey results are heartening, but they can't fully express the changes we've seen in our students. Take the case of one of our students, a 2nd grade student who spends the majority of his day outside a traditional classroom receiving special education services. One time when he was in homeroom, the students were challenged to construct a house of cards, with monetary values associated with each card. After they were finished building, students combined their data and plotted the price of their houses on a wall graph. Most houses were in the $3- to $5-dollar range, but I noticed one point on the graph at $14.75.
It belonged to the student in special education. He had understood that the base of a card house must be strong. He spent a lot of time building that base, using more cards than the others, making sure it was stable before he built the next layer on top. He couldn't explain the rationale behind what he'd done, but he could show it—and he also demonstrated his math ability by correctly adding up the value of the cards. This experience gave the student confidence, and it changed the way the other students thought about him. From then on, in group work, they would fight for him to be on their team.
The benefits of focusing on engineering aren't confined to academic achievement or education equity. We also use the language of the engineering design process in our behavior system. When students are called into the office, instead of having the administrator pass judgment and tell the student what to do, we work through the issue like an engineering problem, asking, "What is the problem? Can you imagine some solutions? From those possible solutions, what's your action plan?" If the results aren't satisfactory, the student has the chance to improve. With this approach, students take ownership of their behavior, just as they've taken ownership of their learning.
Recently, we were thrilled to see Brentwood's progress recognized by its designation as a "North Carolina STEM School." This status was awarded to only 12 schools in the entire state. Of those 12, we were the only elementary school to be so designated.
I mentioned that we're the only elementary school in the district to focus on engineering, but that's about to change. We're now a model for our district. Educators from other districts and even other states are continually visiting us to see our program in action.
The Wake County Public School System has a business partnership with some of the companies located in Research Triangle Park. At the last meeting, company representatives were crying out for the district to graduate more students who can collaborate, work in teams, and solve problems using critical thinking. With our focus on engineering, these are exactly the skills we're developing in our students.
Author's note: Elizabeth Parry, from North Carolina State University's College of Engineering, and Cynthia Berger, from the Engineering is Elementary program at the Museum of Science, Boston, contributed valuable input to this article. Also, subsequent to the writing of this article, Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering received the Donald R. Waldrip Magnet School of Merit Award of Excellence from Magnet Schools of America. Brentwood is now the no. 2 magnet school in the United States for 2015.
Hear what these and other students at the Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering have to say about the school's focus on engineering—and what they're learning in the process.
Cunningham, C. M., & Berger, C. (2014). Integrating science and engineering in the elementary classroom. In Yager, R. (Ed.), Exemplary STEM programs: Designs for success (pp. 423–440). Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association Press.
Cunningham, C. M., & Lachapelle, C. P. (2014). Designing engineering experiences to engage all students. In S. Purzer, J. Strobel, & M. Cardella (Eds.), Engineering in pre-college settings: Synthesizing research, policy, and practices (pp. 117–142). Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
Fantz, T. D., & Katsioloudis, P. J. (2011) Analysis of engineering content within technology education programs. Journal of Technology Education, 23(1), 19–31.
Lachapelle, C. P., Hertel, J. D., Shams, M. F., San Antonio-Tunis, C., & Cunningham, C. M. (2014, June). The attitudes of elementary teachers towards elementary engineering. Presented at the American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition, Indianapolis, IN.
Emily Hardee is the STEM coordinator at the Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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