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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

Building STEM Opportunities for All

Inclusive STEM high schools demonstrate that success in STEM is within reach of all students—provided the right supports are in place.

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In 2010, President Obama issued a challenge to the U.S. education system to create more than 1,000 new STEM-focused schools, including 200 high schools. According to a report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST, 2010), a greater portion of the U.S. populace needs to be better prepared in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to meet the challenges the country faces in energy, health, the environment, and national security.
An innovative response is the creation of inclusive STEM high schools. These schools are a relatively new feature of the U.S. education landscape and can have policy implications for school reform, STEM initiatives, and improving opportunity to learn. They may also point the way for high schools of the future.
Inclusive STEM high schools are stand-alone schools, schools within schools, or school programs that accept students on the basis of their interest in STEM rather than on the basis of aptitude or prior achievement. Inclusive STEM high schools prepare students with the mathematics and science experiences they need to succeed in a STEM college major through a program of greater depth and breadth than is typically required for high school graduation (Lynch, Means, Behrend, & Peters-Burton, 2011).

The Many Faces of Inclusive STEM High Schools

Inclusive STEM high schools enroll students from groups underrepresented in STEM professions through an application process that doesn't require high test scores before high school entry (Means, Confrey, House, & Bhanot, 2008). These schools are designed to develop students' STEM expertise rather than to select students already identified as gifted and talented or as high achieving in STEM. In 2008, there were approximately 100 inclusive STEM high schools in the United States (Means et al., 2008). Currently, there are probably three to four times that number.
Inclusive STEM high schools can be found in a wide range of environments. They may be catalyzed by statewide STEM school initiatives established through boards of education, as we see in Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina. Similar efforts to create such high schools are underway in 16 other U.S. states through the multistate STEMx network.
Inclusive STEM high schools can be individual public charter schools with a STEM theme or members of a STEM charter school network, such as the New Tech Network. Some career and technical education high schools have STEM-related themes (for example, health sciences, engineering, or agriculture); some of these can be classified as inclusive STEM high schools because they were designed to be both college preparatory and focused on STEM.
Some magnet schools also target STEM-related themes. For instance, Connecticut has several magnet schools that can be classified as inclusive STEM high schools, and the state is using them to respond to court-ordered desegregation (Thomas, 2013) as they improve opportunities for students and strengthen local economies.
Some turnaround schools have adopted a STEM focus to improve student achievement. Many appear to be converted neighborhood schools, and, unlike other STEM schools, students attend only by choice.
Inclusive STEM high schools require careful planning and development and often new resources. Some research shows that becoming a STEM school in name only is not particularly beneficial for either the school or its students (Allen Bemis, Wiley, & Eisenhart, 2014; Weis, Cipollone, & Stich, 2014).

What Makes a STEM School Exemplary?

In a recent study (Lynch et al., 2011), we set out to better understand how inclusive STEM high schools work. We selected eight exemplar schools across the United States that had established reputations and strong evidence on measures of student success. The schools all serve a wide range of students and have an even gender balance.
We began our research by looking for evidence of 10 components (see ""). We were also open to finding other elements crucial to their success. Here are snapshots of three of the schools studied.

Metro Early College High School

Metro is not only a STEM-focused school, but also an early college high school that serves approximately 400 students. It was founded with stimulus funding from the Gates Foundation, Battelle Memorial Institute, Ohio State University, and the Coalition for Essential Schools (Han, Lynch, Ross, & House, 2014). Metro sits on a corner of the Ohio State University's campus in Columbus, a convenient location because most of Metro's students take no-cost (to them) college courses there by their junior year. Many students will graduate from Metro with two years of college credits at Ohio State, ready to enter college as juniors.
Metro has an unusual administrative structure. In 2013, Metro High School became its own independent stand-alone regional STEM school, run by a principal who is also its chief academic officer and superintendent. The school is governed by representatives from Ohio State University, Battelle, and local school districts. It enjoys a great deal of autonomy to flexibly respond to opportunities offered by the community and local businesses.
Students in 9th and 10th grade take rigorous core STEM classes in a program that enables them to complete all required college-preparatory science and mathematics courses, and some engineering courses, in two years. Metro also provides semester-long integrated STEM projects that involve the entire school, including the humanities program.
For example, a STEM-focused sustainability project incorporates student art. A closer look at the student-created mosaics and sculptures displayed in the hallways reveals they're made from recycled materials, such as plastic bottle tops, paper wrappers, and spark plugs. In another challenge, students are called on to design an aquarium using sophisticated materials donated by a local merchant. Students must not only integrate STEM concepts to establish a healthy aquarium system, but also write blog posts about their progress for English class.
The school has a mastery learning system that requires students to pass each course with at least a 90 percent average; if students don't achieve that average, they're required to retake the class. Metro students come to understand that the content of their coursework is likely crucial to their success beyond school and that the barely passing grades that some schools allow wouldn't enable them to proceed to higher-level STEM courses.
Metro's challenging core academic program in the first two years prepares juniors to take innovative, yearlong "Learning Center" programs that focus on topics that range from biomedical engineering to energy and the environment. Learning Center experiences include collaborative classes with students and teachers at another local high school as well as related courses at Ohio State. Students participate in job shadowing throughout their Learning Center experiences so they can see real-world applications of their studies.
For instance, in the Bodies Learning Center, a program that integrates biomedical technologies and college coursework, students work with medical residents at the local hospital. They visit related job sites, such as dental labs, a manufacturing center for artificial limbs, and veterinary clinics. For their 3-D art class, they use clay to create anatomical models of bodies with organs.
In their senior year, students continue with college courses as they participate in internships and conduct capstone research projects. One student visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to learn about aeronautical engineering; he then went to the NASA Glenn Research Center to speak with engineers about their day-to-day work.
Metro principal Aimee Kennedy explained how Learning Center themes were designed:
We find a career area in our local context that has possibility for growth. Then we find what college classes people in that career area take. Then we find a high school class that is a bridge to real-world experience. By the end of the year, the kids have grown into mini-professionals who can do a research project under the guidance of the professionals in that area.
The Metro teaching staff is eclectic, ranging from first-year teachers from strong teacher-preparation programs to experienced STEM teachers and career changers with job experience in STEM fields. Some teachers have the know-how and community connections to direct complicated, integrated STEM programs, such as Learning Centers. In addition, Metro has STEM tutors, teaching assistants, and in-house advisors from Ohio State to guide early college experiences.
On the Ohio School Report Card for 2012–13 (n.d.), Metro earned A grades for achievement and gap closing. The school had high percentages of students at the advanced, accelerated, or proficient levels. Also, when student subgroups were disaggregated according to income, race, ethnicity, and disability, all subgroups attained the required 80 percent passing rate (Han et al., 2014).

Denver School of Science and Technology: Stapleton

This engineering-focused STEM public charter high school in Denver, Colorado, was funded by the Denver Public School District construction bond funds and outside sources, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Spillane et al., 2013). The school serves approximately 875 students.
Designed as a STEM school, the school's light-filled open design leaves structural elements, such as pipes and light fixtures, exposed. There are spacious traditional classrooms as well as open structures called pods where students can spread out to do STEM projects. Jumbo monitors in the hallways scroll lists of students who are scheduled for tutoring after school. Huge banners extend from the rafters displaying the school's core values of respect, responsibility, integrity, courage, curiosity, and doing your best. Next to each value is an image of a student who has exemplified the value.
The school's mission is to provide a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum and achieve a 100 percent graduation rate. More than 50 percent of its students come from subgroups underrepresented in STEM majors and careers. Thirty-five percent are Hispanic, and 26 percent are black. Forty-five percent of students come from low-income families. From 2008 to the present, the school has been the highest-performing secondary school in the district. For seven consecutive years, 100 percent of the senior class has been accepted to a four-year college or university (DSST Public Schools, 2014).
The teachers tend to have strong backgrounds in STEM content and real-world STEM experience, and they're encouraged to infuse their own experiential knowledge into the curriculum, which is strongly influenced by collaboration with the department of engineering at the nearby University of Colorado, Boulder. The university helped design the initial engineering courses offered at the school, and some university faculty and graduate students taught the elective engineering courses in the school's early years.
Each year, the 9th grade class is invited to the college campus for a college tour and a hands-on engineering design project in which they help build levies with the university engineering faculty. In 11th grade, students interested in pursuing engineering are invited back to the campus for another full day to discuss admissions to university engineering programs.
There are no remedial academic tracks. The curriculum moves from more traditional courses to experiences that require greater application of concepts through such opportunities as junior internships. For instance, one student interned in one of the toxicology labs at the medical campus of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Another student, through diligent self-advocacy, got an internship at a local TV station.
In senior year, students take applied STEM classes in biochemistry/biotechnology or engineering/physics and complete their graduation requirements with a yearlong senior project. Senior projects have included a thesis on the relationship between cholera and cystic fibrosis, experimentation with slime molds, and an investigation into local aquatic ecosystems. Such projects culminate in a 30-minute defense-style presentation to a panel of four to six adults for a summative grade.
The school mission emphasizes that STEM education is for everyone, not only the gifted and talented, and that "we can always do better." Teachers have professional development time to monitor and analyze student progress and prescribe personalized tutoring and other supports. The mastery-based learning system requires students to pass courses with a C or better. This is viewed not in a punitive way but as an opportunity to spend more time learning the material. In fact, some of the most successful students choose to attend tutoring sessions.

Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences

This public high school in the Chicago Public School District serves approximately 600 students. It was founded more than two decades ago, yet it still seems visionary because from the start it had a goal similar to that of newer inclusive STEM high schools: to prepare students for college through a program that focuses on STEM. The 78-acre school campus, which the school thinks of as a "land laboratory," includes a classroom building, working fields, and a large animal barn.
All students follow the same prescribed curriculum during the first two years, which consists of core college-preparatory science and mathematics courses. Ninth graders study basic agricultural science and agricultural careers and leadership, courses that were designed for urban students unfamiliar with agriculture. A 10th grade course introduces students to five career and technical education pathways—animal science, food science, agricultural mechanics, horticulture and landscape design, and agricultural finance—enabling them to make informed choices about an area of specialization for their last two years of high school.
As they engage in real-life learning in agriculture, students continue to take traditional STEM courses. For example, they learn the chemistry that undergirds horticulture, and they connect mathematics and psychology principles to commodity pricing by writing a business plan for a retail flower business. The high school has a strong relationship with the University of Illinois and a robust system of business and internship partnerships. Through such companies as McDonald's and Eli's Cheesecake, the school offers apprentice programs that involve students in summer research internships to learn about food science.
Students spend 30 minutes each day engaged in physical tasks that are part of agriculture, and involve caring for plants and animals. Students studying food science might monitor water quality and the health of the tilapia in the hydroponic farm, whereas students in animal science might clean stalls, collect eggs, or tend to the needs of the animals. When we visited, a web camera was focused on a mare about to foal; the neighborhood could watch her progress, and the students could be there for the birth. Consequences for such assignments are about more than grades—they affect living things. The school is a metaphor for a farm family; it provides a sense of place, as students care for and support one another.
The teachers, many of whom were agriculture professionals before their career switch to teaching, work closely with former colleagues in the agricultural world as well as with their current teaching colleagues to align the curriculum to industry practices and create an authentic, integrated STEM curriculum.

What Makes These Schools Tick?

Each of the eight schools we studied showed evidence of each of the 10 components that make STEM schools work. Nevertheless, four of those components have special prominence.

A STEM-Focused Curriculum

Each school has a strong college-preparatory STEM curriculum, usually requiring students to take more STEM courses than mandated by their states. Students have to pass STEM courses at a higher performance level than is typical, whether assessments are administered through a mastery learning system or through demanding performance assessments. The curriculum is linked to real-life experiences that require students to perform as responsible individuals operating in collaborative groups in the real world. The schools have expanded beyond their physical and temporal boundaries to form partnerships with industry or colleges (House & Peters-Burton, 2014). These partnerships ask high school students to do more, learn more, and perform as adults as they develop 21st century skills.

A Responsive Administrative Structure

Although each school is organized differently, all have well-defined missions developed in collaboration with the community. They're all schools of choice that have the goal of reaching underserved student groups through a rigorous STEM program. Their leadership is mission-centered.
The schools have flexible administrations that can garner community support and quickly capitalize on opportunities in the community for their students (Ford & Behrend, 2014). School leaders don't necessarily have backgrounds in STEM, but they're all strong leaders who move their schools forward. They've created systems that give teachers opportunities for leadership, creativity, and autonomy. They've developed strong relationships with the community and with industry, and they know each student and family well and are proud of their students' accomplishments.

A Well-Prepared STEM Teaching Staff

The teachers have solid backgrounds in STEM, either through strong discipline-based teacher preparation programs or nontraditional routes to teaching in STEM fields. They collaborate on integrating STEM activities and curricular innovations, both inside and outside school, often including the humanities teachers. As active professionals who seek challenges and growth, the teachers are enthusiastic about teaching and often team teach or teach more than one STEM discipline.
Although modes of instruction vary, interpersonal interactions are personalized and warm. The teachers view each student as someone who can learn and develop, if given the right opportunities (Spillane, 2014).

Supports for Underrepresented Students

The schools focus their efforts on female students, minority students, and those who are first in their families to attend college (Lynch & Ross, 2014). Supports begin with recruiting and admissions systems in which students and families are given a realistic picture of the demands of a STEM high school and what it will take to ready students for college admission and success in STEM fields. Orientation and bonding activities for freshmen prepare them for new ways of learning. They stress values such as responsibility, leadership, collaboration, and courage, and the messages are often delivered through the example of older students who work with younger ones.
These schools have well-developed tutoring systems, and they monitor student progress to match students with supports through teacher-led advisories. Tracking is minimal, but sometimes special classes and doubling up on class time are necessary for certain students—especially in mathematics. The intent is always to reintegrate students into regular classes as soon as possible.
College advising systems include guidance counselors and teachers who know families well and can match students with college opportunities that include scholarships and student loans. This personalized approach is key to the schools' supports and to their positive school climates.

A New Way of Doing High School

Inclusive STEM high schools are springing up across the United States. Such schools have real promise as valuable additions to school systems that want to increase the number of STEM-capable students in their communities and demonstrate that STEM success is within all students' reach.
They also may better fit the needs of students who can't see the relevance of traditional classes and who need more real-world challenges in school. Inclusive STEM high schools offer opportunities that can change the course of students' lives.
Authors' note: This research was conducted by the Opportunity Structures for Preparation and Inspiration (OSPrI) research project, with Sharon Lynch, Tara Behrend, Erin Peters-Burton, and Barbara Means as principal investigators. Funding for OSPrI was provided by the National Science Foundation (DRL 1118851). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of endorsement of the funding agency.

Allen Bemis, C. D., Wiley, K., & Eisenhart, M. D. (2014, April). What is a STEM school? In S. J. Lynch (Chair), Comparing studies of inclusive STEM high schools: Three approaches with different findings and policy implications. Symposium presented at the 2014 AERA Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA.

DSST Public Schools. (2014, March 28). One hundred percent acceptance to college for seventh consecutive year [press release]. Retrieved from

Ford, M. R., & Behrend, T. S. (2014, April). A cross-case analysis of four exemplar inclusive STEM high schools. In E. Peters-Burton (Chair), Critical components of inclusive STEM-focused high schools: A cross-case analysis. Symposium presented at the 2014 AERA Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA.

Han, E. M., Lynch, S. J., Ross, K. M., & House, A. (2014). Metro Early College High School: A case study of an inclusive stem-focused high school in Columbus, Ohio. Retrieved from George Washington University, Opportunity Structures for Preparation and Inspiration in STEM at OSPrI_Report_2014-01.pdf

House, A., & Peters-Burton, E. (2014, April). STEM-focused curriculum in inclusive STEM high schools: A cross-case analysis. In E. Peters-Burton (Chair), Critical components of inclusive STEM-focused high schools: A cross-case analysis. Symposium presented at the 2014 AERA Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA.

Lynch, S. J., & Ross, K. M. (2014, April). A cross-case analysis of four exemplar inclusive STEM high schools. In E. Peters-Burton (Chair), Critical components of inclusive STEM-focused high schools: A cross-case analysis. Symposium presented at the 2014 AERA Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA.

Lynch, S. J., Means, B., Behrend, T., & Peters-Burton, E. (2011). Multiple instrumental case studies of inclusive STEM-focused high schools: Opportunity Structures for Preparation and Inspiration (OSPrI). Retrieved from

Means, B., Confrey, J., House, A., & Bhanot, R. (2008). STEM high schools: Specialized science, technology, engineering, and mathematics secondary schools in the U.S. (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Report). Retrieved from

Obama, B. (2010, September 16). Remarks by the President at the announcement of the "Change the Equation" Initiative. Retrieved from

Ohio School Report Cards. (n.d.). In 2013–2014 report cards for Metro Early College High School. Retrieved from

President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). (2010). Prepare and inspire: K–12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for America's future. Washington, DC: Author.

Spillane, N. K. (2014, April). A cross-case analysis of four exemplar inclusive STEM-focused high schools: Teachers and teaching. In E. Peters-Burton, (Chair), Critical components of inclusive STEM-focused high schools: A cross-case analysis. Symposium presented at the 2014 AERA Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA.

Spillane, N. K., Kaminsky, S. E., Lynch, S. J., Ross, K. M., Means, B. M., & Han, E. M. (2013). Denver School of Science and Technology, Stapleton High School: A case study of an inclusive STEM-focused high school in Denver, Colorado. Retrieved from George Washington University, Opportunity Structures for Preparation and Inspiration in STEM at OSPrI_Report_2013-03.pdf

Thomas, J. R. (2013, November 26). Nearly half the students from Hartford now attend integrated schools. Connecticut Mirror. Retrieved from

Weis, L., Cipollone, K., & Stich, A. E. (2014, April). Inclusive STEM high schools in practice: Outcomes and opportunity structures for low-income underrepresented minorities. In S. J. Lynch (Chair), Comparing studies of inclusive STEM high schools: Three approaches with different findings and policy implications. Symposium presented at the 2014 AERA Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA.

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