By Gail Wood
“She said her class didn’t want to take recess,” Weber reported. “She reminded the students of the agreed upon work stoppage call but no one was interested in taking a time out. When was the last time a teacher had to correct their class in that way? They were excited. They didn’t want to stop. As educators, it’s up to us to raise the bar to create that kind of enthusiasm.”
It’s a snapshot of a new project-based, STEM classroom experience at Community Christian Academy and Northwest Christian High School in Lacey – a dramatic move away from just lecture style teaching.
“Let’s also learn by doing,” said Larry Weber, superintendent describing the campus wide focus on project based learning.
Community Christian Academy and Northwest Christian High School are integrating new and innovative STEM programs (an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math), to enhance and accelerate learning in the classroom. Their unique STEM program is transitioning classes to these subjects through hands-on involvement from the students and a focus on connecting the content to innovation and work-based skills such as project management. “We’re not taking a career field and turning it into an academic subject,” says Michelle Whittaker, the new STEM Coordinator. “We’re having students practice skills they will use in the workplace when they engage in a real-life STEM career field.”
It’s a roll-up-the-sleeves approach to teaching that involves students in problem solving. Rather than being told the answers, students search for the answers in a learn by doing environment.
Partnering with teachers, community experts in the business world come into the classroom, sharing current insights into today’s fields of science, computers and engineering.
“We are putting together a mentor pool to join the classes,” Weber said. “We are looking for successful business professionals, whether it’s an engineer, scientist, software developer or animation expert.”
The classroom objective goes well beyond learning about how to use basic computer programs, like Word and Excel, or understanding how the engineering design process works.
“That’s a different skill,” Weber explained. “Students are instead taught how to take a blank piece of paper and develop a project or product from scratch. Not just how to use the end product, but how to create it. That’s another key distinction to what we’re going to offer.”
It’s a transition from routine learning to innovation.
Northwest Christian High School will hold its first Invention Convention in the spring of 2015. The convention will be a school-wide showcase that allows students to present projects they have developed, while being evaluated by a panel of business and community experts. “It’s like a faith based Shark Tank,” Weber described with a smile.
Michelle Whittaker, who has worked in biomedical research, has recently joined Northwest Christian’s teaching staff and is responsible for helping Weber implement the STEM program. Whittaker is also a National Board Certified teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult Science.
According to Whittaker, a main difference between a traditional and STEM classroom is the role of the teacher. In a STEM classroom, the teacher performs more of a coaching role, pointing the direction rather than supplying the answers. It’s an innovative approach to education.
“The problem with education today and why we’re falling behind the world is we’re still practicing it the same way we used to,” Whittaker said. “Here’s the information. Learn it. Spit it out. Information is at your fingertips today. What kids need now is how to use that information and make something happen with it.”
Whittaker said today’s students are sometimes apathetic, distracted by their cell phone. The traditional lecture experience doesn’t ignite every learning style. In STEM’s project-based classes, where students are asked to do their own research to discover their own answers, involvement is required.
“We can’t sit back and do the same thing we’ve done for 25 years,” Whittaker said. “Oh, here’s my lecture. And open your book, read chapter three and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. There are still teachers who teach that way. This generation grew up as ‘digital natives.’ They process information differently, to some degree, than past generations. Brain research and common sense tell us that we must teach differently to get students engaged and equip them to be successful in today’s business world.”
Weber, who like Whittaker successfully worked for years in the business world, said this move to STEM at Northwest Christian and Community Christian Academy is partially prompted by need. In the United States, there is a shortage of talented workers in math, technology, engineering and science fields.
“There’s a void in our country,” Weber said. “We’re trying to teach these kids to think out of the box – to get innovative and think methodically. This is something that’s needed in this country.”
To help implement the program at their campus, Weber has been observing successful STEM programs at high schools across the country, like Thomas Jefferson in Virginia and High Tech High in San Diego.
“What can we do to really help kids to prepare them for the workplace,” Weber has asked his instructional team. “What can we do that would really be different, but not different for difference sake? Instead, what key learning distinctions can we have to really help and reach our kids?”
Weber is passionate about bringing this new program and learning approach to the campus that makes a meaningful difference in the lives of students.
“It’s a heartfelt philosophy,” Weber said. “It’s not a contrived thing. Let’s help these kids to make our communities and America great. Let’s do it. I’m excited about it.”
One objective of STEM is to nurture tomorrow’s thinkers. Weber has commissioned a video presentation to talk about the campus classroom philosophy. The video includes a scene about a young girl who hears for the first time because of an implant. It’s an example of the innovative thinking that a faith based STEM program tries to promote.
The classroom emphasis is to help a student discover a passion, a talent. And it’s also to prepare students for college. Last year, 93 percent of the graduating seniors at Northwest Christian enrolled in college.
“Instead of working for Bill Gates, the philosophy is how to become the next Bill Gates,” Weber summarized. “And, I am not merely talking about monetary rewards. I am talking about how our students can be leaders in their field who can make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. It’s a big challenge. That’s our vision. We’re taking steps to get there.
Community Christian Academy and Northwest Christian High School are part of a private faith based school system called Northwest Christian Private Schools (also known as The Foundation Campus) located in Lacey, Washington. The campus also includes Community Christian Pre-School and Childcare.