KHS STEM Academy earned STEM Certification

Indiana Department of Education officials announced recently that Kokomo High School’s STEM Academy has earned IDOE STEM certification – making Kokomo one of 14 schools/programs from 7 districts in Indiana to receive this designation in 2021.

 Superintendent Dr. Mike Sargent noted: “I commend the dedication, creativity, and commitment of Kokomo High School STEM Academy teachers and administrators, whose work ensured success in earning STEM certification. The teachers in this program enhanced learning experiences to incorporate STEM concepts while collaborating across content areas to provide cross-curricular, project-based experiences for students. Through this process, teachers created and implemented STEM units based on real-life application of standards.”

 The Indiana Department of Education’s STEM Certified Schools program prioritizes the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines – critical to preparing students for 21st Century success. STEM Certified Schools must offer a non-traditional approach to education by employing inquiry, project-based learning, community engagement, entrepreneurship, student-centered classrooms, and out-of-school STEM activities.

 “Evolving into a STEM school environment is much more than introducing a program,” IDOE officials noted in their most recent STEM Certification guide. “For schools, this requires establishing a common local agenda to significantly improve student performance, incorporating STEM education at all levels, engaging local businesses and the community, and adopting new curriculum and instructional practices. A school’s success depends on prioritizing STEM and putting effective models that best meet student needs in place.”

 Kokomo High School’s STEM Academy launched six years ago, and staff members within the academy have worked each school year to build a program that meets the IDOE guidelines for STEM certification.

 This certification process began with a self-evaluation and a meeting with the IDOE STEM Specialist to discuss that self-evaluation. The next step involved completing the application, which required KHS STEM Academy leaders to showcase evidence of success in the nine essential elements of the STEM Certification Evaluation Rubric. The application covered culture, curriculum, instruction, and partnerships. The IDOE’s STEM Certification Review Team, comprised of two IDOE staff members and two STEM Cadre members, then reviewed the application and provided a preliminary score report. Programs that scored high enough qualified for a site visit, where the IDOE STEM Certification Team revisited the application and compared it with the additional evidence and supporting documentation obtained during the site review. Applications that received a minimum score of 65 points, with a required score of three on all essential elements, were designated as STEM-Certified Schools or Programs.

“During the past two years, our KHS STEM Academy staff members have worked diligently with IDOE officials and staff from other STEM schools to develop curriculum that would distinguish our STEM program,” KHS Principal Angela Blessing noted. “Our teachers have worked many hours to learn and grow their STEM curriculum in order to provide our students with an outstanding educational experience.”

When the KHS STEM Academy was introduced, some teachers began by completing small, in-class projects that would take a day or two, while other teachers integrated STEM instructional practices into their teaching methodology, KHS STEM Curriculum Supervisor Jill Hickey explained. As the academy evolved, teachers began creating interdisciplinary and interdepartmental units.

During the 2020-2021 school year, the STEM Academy completed a cross-curricular unit on communicable diseases. Teachers made tie-ins to the COVID-19 pandemic, so students could easily relate to what they were learning, noted STEM Academy English teacher Dr. Joy Dewing.

“In my class, we read books about, and studied, yellow fever – both historically and in the present,” Dr. Dewing added. “Utilizing the new Maker Space, students worked in groups to create something that could slow or stop the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses. This led students to research what is currently being done in this field, and what can be improved upon.”

In a KHS math class, students learned about exponential growth, using the COVID-19 pandemic as a real-life application. Students made calculations, while factoring in mitigating circumstances, such as vaccines and quarantines. A social studies class in the KHS STEM Academy studied the effects of the pandemic on the economy and then created a pandemic time capsule in the Maker Space. The unit also involved a choir class and art class.

The STEM curriculum also was built into the Special Education program at KHS. Students in Temberly Rinker’s Transitions Science class utilized two greenhouses, two ecosystem aquariums, and one hydroponics tower garden to plant, care for, and harvest plants throughout the school year. Students also researched solutions to problems that arose with the plants.

“Learning in the STEM Academy looks very different from traditional classroom instruction,” Mrs. Rinker explained. “Students in the STEM Academy are encouraged to try new things, and failures are viewed as a starting point for future success.”

A new Maker Space at KHS supports this philosophy as well.

The KHS Maker Space was opened in 2021 utilizing funding from a School Improvement Grant. The Maker Space provides opportunities for students to experiment with a laser cutter and a 3D printer, while also sewing, building, soldering, and developing a wide variety of other skills.

KHS created this space to support STEM instruction in the classroom. The goals include enhancing the learning structures in the STEM academy and engaging students in targeted, and differentiated, learning cycles to enhance student achievement.

“The Maker Space provides a unique opportunity for students at KHS,” noted Mrs. Rinker, who also serves as a Maker Manager. “In the Maker Space, students are given access to both high-tech and hands-on learning materials in an environment that encourages exploration and imagination. Students can explore ideas, and create, while using a variety of materials and tools.”

KHS officials also established a partnership with Purdue University through the GEAR UP grant program, which aims to increase the number of students who are prepared to enter, and to succeed, in postsecondary education, while also conducting research to better understand student STEM learning.

Through this grant, Purdue officials have supported the STEM Academy by providing grant dollars for STEM resources, professional development for staff, and an after-school STEM program that works hand-in-hand with the academy.

Jenifer Scott, who teaches English in the STEM Academy, also serves as the STEM Building Coordinator for KHS and works closely with Purdue’s GEAR UP staff.

“It is an honor to be a part of the KHS STEM Academy,” Ms. Scott said. “We truly are among a group of elite teachers.”

As her knowledge of STEM education continues to grow, Ms. Scott pairs more STEM activities with novels her students read in her English class. After reading All the Light We Cannot See, for example, students soldered radio kits to better understand one of the novel’s characters.

The KHS STEM Academy staff members marvel at the progress made within the program during the past six years.

“When KHS administrators first began talking about a STEM Academy, no one really knew what that meant, or what it would look like,” Dr. Dewing noted. “Since then, we have conducted research, tried new things, worked through the IDOE qualifications, and worked hard to improve.”

Mrs. Rinker added: “Two years ago we really began to dig into the specifics of what it meant to be a STEM Academy by taking apart the certification process piece by piece. While we discovered the areas where we excelled, we also discovered areas in which we needed improvement. As a result, staff members spent a great deal of time learning and brainstorming ways we could adjust and branch out to embrace the STEM education process.”

KHS Vice Principal Jason Spear, who oversees the STEM Academy, commended the teachers for their hard work to earn certification.

“Our STEM Academy teachers went above and beyond to make STEM certification possible,” Mr. Spear noted. “The process for certification was not easy, but it definitely was worth it. Our STEM Academy teachers worked very hard, and their belief in our vision for the academy made a big difference. I am proud of our great team. All staff members within Kokomo’s STEM academy are committed to growing the program in the coming school years through additional professional development.”

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