DeSoto ISD took the STEM initiative of 21st century-learning that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to another level with the creation of their iSTEAM 3D academies. Designed last year and implemented in the district’s three middle schools, these academies are ground-breaking in both curriculum and design.
THE CONCEPT FOR iSTEAM 3D ACADEMIES
After DeSoto’s Superintendant visited several schools in Florida implementing STEM learning, the district was inspired to put together a team to implement 21st century learning and investigate the difference in STEM and STEAM programs (STEAM adds the arts). “We developed our own definition, to create curriculum including that ‘A’,” says Dr. Jo Green-Rucker, the district’s Assistant Superintendant of Curriculum and Instruction. Adding the arts, which includes visual art, music, dance and drama, increases creative skills and problem-solving.
The academies wanted to focus on “innovation, rigor, creativity, and encompass 21st century skills,” according to Dr. Green-Rucker. 21st century learning skills are generally agreed to include developing competencies in collaboration, communication, digital literacy, critical thinking and problem solving. And so to the base of STEAM, DeSoto created their own unique concept by adding the ‘i’ which stands for ‘innovative’ and ‘3D’ which is the “how” of the learning process: discovering, designing, and developing. With it’s curriculum defined, the district was then tasked with creating three open learning spaces to house the new academies, one at each of the district’s middle schools.
DESIGNING THE ACADEMIES
DeSoto moved quickly once their curriculum was developed, and the first iSTEAM 3D academy at East Middle School was built in a jaw-dropping 20 days. And, says Dr. Green-Rucker, the district realized “that just pulling any furniture [for it] wouldn’t work.” Smith System, a leader in design of furniture for 21st century classrooms, was able to provide tables, lab tables, chairs and storage systems for the academy within the ambitious timeframe. The district’s maintenance department, under the guide of an architect, then created the other two academies in the span of 3-4 months.
Each academy is designed with large open areas for content, projects and collaboration, a dance room and a science lab. “We wanted [the students] to use every inch of the academy . . . to use any way they want,” says Dr. Green-Rucker. And the flexible and mobile furniture “allows students the flexibility to go from large group settings to a small group setting or individual space.” As East Middle School iSTEAM 3D Science teacher Joey Hayward puts it, “the tables are a whole new world” for students, as are the 3 monitors and Apple TV that outfit the science labs.
LEARNING IN THE ACADEMIES
This new way of learning in a project-based, collaborative environment was presented to each middle school. Students and teachers were then welcomed to apply to be a part of the new academies this past fall. Each academy chose five teachers – 1 each for Math, Science, Social Studies, Reading and English and 50 students in each grade level – 6, 7 and 8. Hayward, in his seventh year of teaching, says “full project-based learning was always what I wanted to do.”
(video via DeSoto ISD YouTube channel)
A typical day in the academy, according to West Middle School Reading teacher Yvonne Lowry starts “in the morning [as] students rotate to each teacher to receive content and project instruction. In the afternoons, students have project time with their small groups.” The versatility of the space design and casters on the furniture allow easy transitions from large groups to small. The Acrobat Crescent tables “add style and diversity to the atmosphere,” states Lowry. Hayward says that students are enjoying their new lab stools and Trespa tables “because they are different from the traditional” which is facilitating the new learning process. In the science labs, students get to “apply learning hands-on, and also get a digital view of what they are learning– it’s the best of both worlds in research,” he adds.
THE RESULTS ARE IN
Adapting to an entirely new way of learning in an entirely new setting wasn’t easy for students or teachers. “Students will say ‘when are we going to get our books?’ ‘What happens if I don’t see my content teacher every day?’” says Dr. Green-Rucker of some concerns. Hayward says “It took 2-3 months to hook everyone on this new learning process. It took time to transition.” Teachers were forced to change their style of teaching, as Lowry says that now “I design projects for the students, provide direction and content instruction.” Dr. Green-Rucker points out that the pull back to traditional-style teaching and learning has been the greatest challenge, something she has dubbed “the rubber band.” Sometimes we “have to deal with the desire to do things in a traditional manner. Sometimes we try to go back to what we are accustomed to doing.” The new role of the teacher in the academies is “more of a facilitator,” says Lowry, “the learning has become more student-centered.” Hayward agrees. “We guide them,” he says. “The students are taking ownership of their education.”
Overall, Dr. Green-Rucker says the academies are excelling. “We look at data. The students in iSTEAM are scoring higher than those not in it.” Hayward adds “from August to January we’ve seen tremendous growth in students.” DeSoto’s commitment to 21st century learning is paying off, and the academies hope to graduate students with a skill set that will make them not only successful learners, but globally competitive in the workforce.