Principals & STEM for 21st Century Learning    
  March 2014
In This Issue
Three Years of Progress in "Going Stem"
Chicago STEM school
New Standards, Old Methods for NGSS
Adding Art to Science

If your students need a few minutes' inspiration on how amazing chemistry can be, have them watch this dazzling video!

CEI is pleased to announce that the NAESP Foundation (link) has agreed to continue supporting CEI development and dissemination efforts in 2014.

With apologies to Kevin Manning and the error last issue about the speed of light: "As every school boy knows," the pace is 186,000 miles per second. We used "feet."

Remember that you can read the results of our survey about Principals' Priorities



NB: An article on NAESP's Principal Mentoring has been published by
 The International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education.
 Written by Christine Mason, Executive Director of the Center for Educational Improvement, and Kathleen Sciarappa, Curriculum And Instruction, Plymouth State University, New Hampshire,
and is titled
"National Principal Mentoring: Does It Achieve Its Purpose?"

Want more
STEM information?
Check the newsletter from the CEI archives on STEM and School Resources.

STEM facts to share

-The United States ranks 20th among all nations in the proportion of 24-year-olds who earn degrees in natural science or engineering.

-The United States ranked 28th in math literacy and 24th in science literacy, according to a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service.

-More than half of teens (55%) would be more interested in STEM simply by having teachers who enjoy the subjects they teach.

from STEM Fast Facts


Dear Educators,


A world without hand-helds. Imagine being transported back to the 1980's.  To be in a world without amazing hand-held technologies?  Or perhaps even to return to the 90's in our pre-cell phone era.  Remember standing on street corners, putting quarters into phones that were encased in class cubicles with folding doors, and scrambling to find another quarter before you heard a dreaded "clink" as your call was dropped?


Our 21st century world is fascinating -- high tech and high touch. We have the ability to Skype around the world, to communicate with people thousands of miles away as if they were next door.  But how do we maintain and advance our technologies to keep pace with the needs and demands for more and better solutions to add to our comfort, our entertainment, and our business prowess?


The market for fun and innovation. We know there is a market, a huge market, for new technologies and innovations that add to our "fun" factor as well as technologies that enable us to solve problems more quickly and efficiently.


Students design, invent, and explore with STEM. This month's Wow! addresses the role of schools and principals in preparing students to invent, to design solutions, and to be ready for 21st century careers.  This month, in Wow!, you will hear from principal teacher teams in Illinois and Pennsylvania.  And our Wow! interns will also 1) share a few tidbits about connections between STEM and traditional  curricula and 2) link to some lessons and activities that your school could easily adopt or adapt to advance your STEM programs. 


STEM School Progress -- a Three-Year Look
by Dr. Greg Egnor, Principal and Director of Special Education, Lower Burrell School District, PA

At Stewart Elementary, in Burrell, a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, implementing an innovative STEM program was the result of a district-wide restructuring effort that began in 2010. We aimed to create an upper elementary school that was relevant to student needs in the 21st century, and STEM learning was a natural fit! By embracing the "T" and "E" in STEM, we set the foundation for inquiry and design to became the cornerstone of our program providing students opportunities to learn through collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.


The challenge to accomplish these goals was met with

  • intensive professional development,
  • curriculum changes, and
  • scheduling overhauls.

Year 1. In our first year, our elementary science curriculum shifted from a traditional textbook program to an inquiry-based program delivered primarily through the National Geographic Science series. A science coach worked with staff to implement this program and address the instructional changes required for using inquiry and the scientific method. Two science labs provided plenty of space for these experiences and hands on labs.


Additionally, the Engineering is Elementary program (EiE) was adopted to provide an engineering experience separate from science. This is delivered during "TEC" time (Teaching Engineering to Children), a block of time designated solely for students to experience engineering, design, and "EiE". A designated engineering lab provides a wealth of materials for various design challenges that occur throughout the curriculum.


Interdisciplinary approach. During the first year, we added computer classes for all students with a curriculum that shifted from a typing and application program, to one that embraced research, investigation, and even coding! Our art program provided unique opportunities for students to engage in design and inquiry, and our music program offered a variety of musical experiences and performances for all our students.


Year 2. In year two, Stewart Elementary's efforts focused on overhauling our math curriculum to address the adoption of the PA Core Standards.

  • The McGraw-Hill My Math series was adopted to facilitate this effort.
  • A math coach worked with staff,  particularly assisting with the instructional shifts that occurred due to the new standards of practice.
  • Our PTA, administration, and staff worked together to create the Science Olympiad inquiry and design team competition.
  •  Additionally, we developed a 5th grade robotics course using Lego Mindstorms materials.

Year 3. Now in our third year, our STEM program continues to evolve. Central to this effort, we offer  various parent training/ information nights that have been scheduled through this spring. These sessions are not designed as open house nights, but rather as opportunities for parents to experience the same inquiry, design, and mathematical thinking processes that their children are applying in their science activities at our school.


Unique student needs. Our special education and gifted programs have aligned their instruction around design and inquiry with noticeable results. We now offer a Girls Engaged in Math and Science (GEMS) club to any 5th grade girl in an effort for our girls to excel in STEM, moving through middle school and high school.


Currently, we are overhauling our schedule once again to improve cross-curricular experiences for students, as well as efficiently deliver instruction of our varied course offerings. Additionally, we are preparing STEM summer camp offerings in partnership with other school districts as well as a local college. We also are exploring the creation of a 4th grade robotics course to go along with the 5th grade course.


Though only midway through our third year as a STEM school, some common outcomes have been noted.

  • Our students demonstrate a capacity to collaborate independently through the various investigations and challenges presented to them on a regular basis.
  • They show enthusiasm for critical thinking opportunities, and are quite creative with their solutions.

However, very interestingly, is the fact that our middle school has needed to shift scheduling and programs to provide for students who are more advanced in their science learning needs and desire to engage in tech education. As we continue to navigate through the implementation of the PA Core Standards, and its new assessment, we look forward to continuing to improve and expand our program.


STEM Changes at a Chicago School
by Melissa Ramirez, science teacher, and Dr. William Truesdale, Principal, Chicago, IL

At Douglas Taylor Elementary, on the far South East Side of Chicago, Illinois, we have taken great strides to revamp our science program, with the goal of offering enhanced learning experiences that will lead to powerful student achievement.


In 2012 we decided to take a new approach to science instruction, beginning with the middle school-the upper grades at Douglas Taylor. Our student population is diverse, including 37% English Language learners and 13 % special education students. Although the majority of our students exit their bilingual programs by middle school, studies have shown that it takes a full 5 - 7 years post-bilingual education for them to master the academic language of a mainstream classroom. We are continuing to target reading comprehension through school-wide practice, and, according to our NWEA data, our students are on track with their progress.


Working with our Taylor Elementary students, we quickly recognized challenges in their mastery of objectives in science. We found two major issues:


  • Students interest and enthusiasm did not match our expectations
  • They had trouble understanding the text


We realized that their motivation might improve if we could find exciting ways to draw them into their learning. We also needed to provide instruction about the readings in ways that they would understand.

To boost their confidence through successful experiences, we focused on three components of instruction:

  • Expanding their vocabulary
  • Providing a multiple modality approach with kinesthetic and visual opportunities for learning
  • Improving their reading comprehension through providing more thorough, high-interest, background knowledge

At Taylor, we also invested in upgrading the science lab with both technology and new science books. We applied for many grants and formed new partnerships with organizations and museums around the city to build programs that students requested and desired.

When Taylor Elementary students expressed interest in taking part in programs that did not yet exist, such as engineering and robotics, we were inspired to pursue these avenues. We worked diligently and received five grants from programs that provided everything from safety equipment to preserving organisms and developing live animal habitats. Students learned biology directly through seven living habitats in their classrooms, also learning responsibility and compassion through care-taking.


To further our program, Taylor Elementary developed partnerships with C3 (the Chicago Conservation Corps), the Chicago Field Museum, the Kitchen Community (for a "learning" garden), the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and the John G. Shedd Aquarium. Through these partnerships we formed a green team for conservation and sustainable energy, developed a native plant garden, furthered student understanding of botany and nutrition, reduced energy consumption, engineered solar-powered cars, and began an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) underwater robotics program.


The results of revamping the science program at our school showed student growth by seventh graders of 19 % in the ISAT exam. Our school is currently the second highest performing school in science in our area. We hope that stakeholders will continue to contribute learning opportunities that will reach students throughout the entire school, keeping us moving in an upward trajectory.


Editor's note: Watch for additional information on Taylor's STEM partnerships and programs in a CEI blog to be posted later this month. 

 P-3 New Standards, Old Methods
by Gwen Mak, CEI Intern and George Mason University student
Since the April 2013 release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), educators across the nation have renewed their interest in science education. The focus is not only on content, but also on the method of education. The NGSS encourage an integrated, investigative approach to science education that allows students to make their own meaningful discoveries about how the world works. Furthermore, the NGSS call for lessons to be tied to the students' own interests "or be connected to societal or personal concerns" (Achieve, Inc., 2013). However, as with the implementation of many new educational standards or paradigms, schools and educators are struggling with exactly how to meet these standards (Mason, 2014).


There is a time-tested method of education which incorporates many of the main tenets of the NGSS. It integrates subjects across the curriculum and is driven by students' individual interests. It is inherently inquiry-and-discovery based while providing rich content. Because the method encourages students to learn about what interests them, students' intrinsic motivation for continued learning is maintained. Unfortunately, the method is often overlooked, perhaps because it is both misunderstood (Murray, 2013) and under-researched (Walsh, 2013; Lillard, 2005; Shapiro, 1993).



The method of education I am describing is the Montessori Method. Developed over 100 years ago in Italy by Dr. Maria Montessori, the Montessori Method aims to encourage students to become independent, life-long learners. Dr. Montessori was the first female physician in Italy and used her background to scientifically develop her philosophy, materials, and methods.
  • The "Method" places students at the center of their own learning, with adults serving more as tour guides, consistent with the NGSS concept that educators should prepare students to "acquire additional information on their own" (Achieve, Inc., 2013).
  • The curriculum, which is very appropriate for P-3 students, begins with very young children (even toddlers can enjoy Montessori environments) and encourages exploration within limits.
  • The primary environment, for students aged three- to six- years, is the most well known.

Sink and Float. In the primary Montessori environment, teachers typically give lessons on a one-on-one basis to individual students, or at most to small groups. Beginning with lessons such as "Sink and Float," students as young as three years of age enjoy a truly hands-on learning experience. The Sink and Float lesson involves a bowl of water, and a selection of small objects, which either sink or float. The student carefully places each item into the water to observe the effect. Based on her observations of the object, the student will place it in the "sink" or "float" column on a laminated chart. While this lesson does not directly teach the definitions of "sink" and "float," it allows the student to experience each phenomenon and piques the student's interest in properties of objects, and observation and classification generally.


Knobbed Cylinders. Many Montessori lessons also incorporate "controls of error," meaning the materials themselves, rather than the teachers, correct any mistakes the student has made.

  • For example, the Knobbed Cylinders are materials pre-kindergarten students can use in sorting lessons that teach discrimination amongst sizes - good preparation for careful observation and spatial awareness in future scientific pursuits.
  • The first lesson includes a single wooden brick containing ten cylindrical apertures and corresponding wooden cylinders. From left to right, each aperture and cylinder pair decrease in size.
  • The student removes each cylinder from the corresponding aperture in the brick, arranges them randomly on the table, and then places them individually back into the brick, each time becoming better at fitting the cylinders to their appropriate apertures.
  • If the student makes a mistake, there will be a cylinder left out at the end. Without requiring adult intervention, the student can go back and correct his own mistake (Montessori, 1912)



One Virginia school is following Dr. Montessori's philosophy with its entire P-3 student body and curriculum. The Montessori Academy at Belmont Greene (MAB), in Ashburn, VA, is a place where children ages 10 months to nine years learn to be explorers of their environments. True to Montessori tradition, the school is thoughtful about every aspect, from the specific design of the building to the individual lessons teachers place on the shelves in each classroom. MAB, a full member school of the American Montessori Society, was founded by Beth and Bart Theriot, a mother and son team. The school is an example of how the Montessori philosophy and curriculum can be practiced to create a thriving community of life-long learners.


Using thoughtfully created materials and specially trained teachers, students work on lessons independently or in small groups. From these small lessons, undertaken at age three, students learn to be curious about their environments, drawing their own connections between concepts and eager to learn more (Torrence, 2012). In short, the Montessori Method, when properly implemented, furthers many of the values and objectives embodied by the NGSS.



Achieve, Inc. (2013, June). The Next Generation Science Standards Executive Summary. Retrieved from

Lillard, A. S. (2005). Montessori: The science behind the genius.
New York: Oxford University Press.  Ebook available at: 
Mason, C. (2014, January 27). Principals, NGSS, and STEM. Center for Educational Improvement. Retrieved from

Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori Method: Scientific pedagogy as applied to child education in "The Children's Houses" with Additions and Revisions by the Author. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. Free ebook available from:

Murray, A. (2012). Public knowledge of Montessori Education. Montessori Life, 24(1), 18-21.

Schapiro, D. (1993). What if Montessori Education is part of the answer? Education Digest, 58, 40-40.

Torrence, M. (2012). Montessori Education: An idea whose time has come? Montessori Life, 24(2), 18-23. Available from ERIC online:  

Walsh, D. J. (2013). A few, of many, important overlooked ideas in early childhood education. International Journal of Early Childhood Education, 19(2), 1-1

Put Some Art in Your STEM / Science
by Norrell Edwards, PhD student at University of Maryland and CEI Intern and Carolyn Lieberg, CEI
 Principals can play an important role by directing their after-school staff and their librarians to expand activities in ways that add science to art or art to science. Send them the linked article!

Have you heard of STEM's partner program, STEAM? Steam incorporates technology, engineering, math and the arts! STEAM allows students to creatively engage with the sciences through various arts activities. In a recent School Library Journal article, Amy Koester discusses how easily libraries and after-school programs can create STEAM programs. Some schools may not realize that they are already halfway there. If an arts and crafts program for students is in place, then the science component is the only missing piece.


Keeping It Simple. Adding some science experiences does not have to be complicated! Koester suggests activities as simple as talking about the natural world when looking at picture books during story time or examining bugs under a magnifying glass. Even having children draw their favorite animals and then learn more about those animals can be a STEAM activity.


"Make It and Take It." With sufficient materials or equipment, students can spread their STEAM fun to new spaces through "Make It and Take It" experiments. With a "Make It and Take It" station students can create experimental objects, from parachutes to paper airplanes, take their pulse before and after 10 jumping jacks, or experiment with a ruler and a fulcrum to learn about balancing objects. Students will either have information or objects to take home from their exploration. This is great way to possibly join parents in as well.



         The Philadelphia Science Museum project on STEAM


The Discovery education website provides a wealth of resources for teachers and administrators for a large range of student ages and academic subjects. A cursory glance at the website reveals a host of great STEAM activities:
  •  In a lesson called Inventors and Inventions,students in grades k-5 are encouraged to begin doing research on everyday inventions. Through a holistic approach students learn about how certain inventions came to be, such as tape or cutlery, or many other objects they may be curious about. The teacher helps the students come up with interesting questions about the object- what is the economic impact of the invention or what did people do before this object was invented? Finally the student must write a report using a narrative mode to create interest. In this way students get to see that everything has a story and that story can be told in different ways.
  • The website also suggests having students draw a picture depicting one stage of the invention's development. This type of project can encompass many important aspects of life and learning: history, science, writing, and art.

With STEAM, students can be engaged on multiple levels. Last month, in Naperville, Illinois, STEAM students in an after-school program at Crone Middle School, had a chance to ask wind-energy expert Kimberly Smith about their experiments. The students are constructing turbines, and they were able to gain many insights from Smith about size, number, and placement effectiveness. Smith is vice-president for construction and operation services for Acciona Energy North America (Baker, 2014).   


Faribault, Minnesota, schools will be offering an expanded STEAM program this summer with a grant from Flextronics. Where the 2013 program focused on helping students who were lagging in core subjects, this summer will be "full steam ahead" with continued help in reading and math but with added enrichment projects in geocaching and orienteering, the science of transportation, the art of the Medieval era, and other topics.  


"We have three goals for Summer STEAM: reduce the achievement gap, reduce the enrichment gap and encourage students to make healthy choices," said Anne Marie Leland, community education director (O'Neill, 2014)   



Baker, S. (2014, February 21). Students find energy study a breath of fresh air. 
The Beacon-News, a Chicago Sun Times publication.   

O'Neill, E. (2014, February 27). Faribault Public Schools expands summer STEAM program. Faribault Daily News

STEM & STEAM -- Watch for more articles in future issues!  Remember also that partnerships are important and that many businesses are interested in helping schools with STEM.

At the Forefront,


Cutting edge, prominent, leading, in the vanguard. We believe that STEM will help pave the way for our students to be leaders, to be ready for a wide array of exciting careers and opportunities--opportunities spanning many industries and opportunities for workers with various skills, from the mundane to the miraculous, from the thinkers to the doers, from jobs for technicians to jobs for CEOs. 


STEM careers stand to cut a wide swath for many years to come. STEM may be one of the most important investments in our youth, for their lives and our futures.

Christine Mason
Executive Director, Center for Educational Improvement
CEI is collaboraating with the NAESP Foundation to bring innovations to school leaders.
Save 25% through June 1 on selected CEI workshops. Check out our offerings hereI
Offer Expires: June 1, 2014