Imagine, Investigate, Innovate

Cam Macones ’17 in the greenhouse. Photo Credit: Jay Fram

In 2010, MICDS math and science faculty accepted a challenge to develop a curriculum that actively engaged students in research and inspired curiosity about the natural world. They produced a visionary STEM curriculum aligned with national math and science standards, and motivated MICDS students of all ages to embrace the STEM disciplines in creative and engaging ways.

“Our STEM curriculum requires an inquiry-based, hands-on approach to instruction,” explains Bob Shaw, MICDS JK-12 Science Department Chair. “We believe this approach develops high-level critical thinking and problem solving skills and keeps our students energized by the learning process.”

“Our program is distinct because we have developed a cohesive JK-12 program that sees science, technology, engineering and math as integrated disciplines,” adds Amy Scheer, MICDS JK-12 Mathematics Department Chair. “Our faculty are always seeking new ways to demonstrate application in the classroom to help students see the connection between what they are learning now and how that information will be relevant in the future.”

Four years into the implementation of this innovative curriculum, MICDS Magazine took some time to investigate what STEM education looks like in the Lower, Middle and Upper Schools.

Lower School sciences students investigate a virtual reality sand table. Photo Credit: Glennon Williams

Hands-on and Head First

Lower School science

In the Beasley Lower School, “science is all about STEM,” says Christy Moore, Lower School Science Teacher. “We are always experimenting, revising and revamping–that’s what keeps students excited and engaged.”

The engineering process is integrated into nearly every science unit because it gives JK-4th grade students experience with redesign, problem solving and teamwork. Every unit concludes with a STEM-related assessment. For example, during their study of weather, senior kindergarten students build a shade structure to protect a snake made from UV beads. They evaluate how well their structures offer shade and rebuild if necessary. Why is engineering so critical? “The key is for students to realize that a project isn’t necessarily finished after one round of work. They learn the importance of striving to make something better,” Ms. Moore explains.  Students also gain valuable practice organizing and analyzing data, and asking critical questions like “what method or structure worked best and why?”

As part of this final assessment, students also articulate what they have learned using “I can” statements. For example, the junior kindergarten class begins its study of science with a unit about change. One of their “I can” statements for this unit is, “I can observe that most things change as they get older.” As Ms. Moore explains, “If students can articulate the key goal of each unit, then I know they have learned what they need to know.”

Because Ms. Moore teaches all Lower School students, she’s able to build on the previous year’s work. “I know the students very well and can plan lessons that challenge them,” she says. The spacious science room that  “gives us the freedom to get messy,” the 100-acre campus, and a courtyard complete with a chicken coop and offer students vast opportunities to explore and discover. “If my students love science when they leave my classroom I know I have done my job,” she says.

Christy Moore’s third grade science class experiments with wind tunnels and wind resistance.

Beginning with the End in Mind

Middle School Science

In the Middle School, students explore  physical and earth sciences in 5th grade, environmental science in 6th grade, biology in 7th grade and chemistry and physics in 8th grade. The curriculum also offers an introduction to astronomy, robotics, writing computer code and more. Middle School faculty believe that beginning the instructional process “with the end in mind” allows them to develop a growth mindset in their students. This growth mindset allows students to take risks in STEM challenges as well as in daily classroom activities.

Marin Cline ’25 works on an experiment.

In 7th grade, teachers challenge students to use computer models, “which give students opportunities to work with large samples and conduct simulations in order to identify patterns and develop hypotheses,” explains Rachel Tourais, 7th Grade Science Teacher.  In January 2017, 7th graders completed a new computer programming unit using StarLogo Nova software to write code for a program that simulated how infectious diseases spread. Computer models are especially useful when there are constraints studying the phenomena directly in the lab. The unit “combined basic computer science skills with an authentic scientific experience,” says Pat Woessner, Middle School Coordinator of Instructional Technology. “Early exposure to the real work of scientists is one of our goals for students.”

Chemistry and Physics are the main drivers of the 8th grade science curriculum, which is closely linked with the 9th-grade STEM course, Chemical and Physical Systems. “Many schools do not introduce chemistry and physics until 9th or 10th grade” explains Callie Bambenek, 8th grade science teacher. “Our instructional practices are research- and project-based to push students from thinking concretely to new levels of abstract thinking: ABCs (activity before content), flipped classrooms, engineering challenges, and coding.” Adds 8th grade science teacher Michelle Hrastich, “We look at the whole child to develop their transformative student experience. We passionately feel that students are at the center of our curriculum instead of the curriculum is at the center of our students.”

Where Breadth Meets Depth

Upper School  Science

Ninth graders take Chemical and Physical Systems at either the accelerated or regular level. Developed specifically for the new STEM curriculum, the graduating Class of 2017 is the first to have completed the course. “The integrated STEM class foreshadowed what I would find in more advanced classes while presenting me with concepts and subjects that were both interesting and engaging,” says Jake Flom ’17, who is currently studying AP® Chemistry, AP® Physics and Vector Calculus.  “I believe that my 9th and 10th grade STEM courses are the reason that I’m so involved in the sciences today.”

Maura Court ’18 labels evidence in Forensics Class.

All coursework relates to at least one of the STEM disciplines and features integrated lessons and labs. For example, to conclude a unit about energy, students made wind turbines. Most used cardboard or wood to construct their blades, but one student used the 3D printer. Students tested the turbines to determine the most effective designs, but “the process is what is important,” notes Michael Black, Upper School Science Teacher. “Our kids learn that in engineering, things continue to evolve. Our goal is to provide multiple opportunities to explore real-world applications of science.” For this reason, Science 9 also touches on fundamental particle physics, a topic that is rarely covered at the high school level, but is popular in science circles and in the news.  

No matter the course, science and math teachers work closely to coordinate the timing of lessons, ensuring that students have the math skills necessary to be successful in chemistry, physics, coding and engineering. “We want students to understand the usefulness of math, so we integrate science and math together in class,” explains Dr. Jeff Gaw, Upper School Science Teacher. Ninth graders use Jupyter Notebooks to learn how to write code in a structured way as well as how to solve complex scientific problems using its data visualization and manipulation tools.  “We use coding to solve problems and answer scientific questions to simulate for students how professional scientists work,” Dr. Gaw continues.

After Upper School students take environmental science or one AP® level science course, those wishing to continue their study may choose from an impressive variety of applied science topics such as forensics, neuroscience, maker science and kinesiology, to name a few. Because McDonnell Hall is equipped with a professional-grade research classroom/laboratory, students also have the opportunity to pursue independent study and research at a level typically not offered until the college years.

Dr. Katrina Brandis oversees the Upper School’s scientific research program, now in its third year. Interest in advanced level research has increased significantly. Thirteen students are enrolled in the course this year, compared to eight in 2015-2016 and three in 2014-2015. “We believe it is important to expose students to real scientific investigation early in their academic careers so they realize that learning science and actually doing the work of a scientist are very different,” Dr. Brandis explains. “We give them the experience of failing, teaching themselves, and experiencing big and small victories. The earlier they can have an authentic research experience, the sooner they know if it is something they want to pursue in college.”

Students perform extensive research on the topic of their choosing, and because of the well-equipped O’Hara Research Lab they have ample space and equipment to conduct the necessary experiments. They also learn how to comprehend high level scientific literature, which they use as references in their work. Senior research projects underway this spring include Nikki Kasal’s investigation of the question of heavy antibiotic use leading to resistant bacteria, and Nathan Huang’s study of how resting heart rates are affected by doing surveys about stress levels and lifestyles.

“One of the best things we do here at MICDS is offer a breadth of experiences and then allow kids to deep dive in areas of interest,” says Dr. Brandis.

Amirah Al-Sagr ’18 uses the STEM building glass walls to solve equations.

MATH: Putting the Pieces Together

The JK-12 Math Department uses a concept-based approach to teaching and learning to ensure students understand how all of the concepts fit together. “Our teachers demonstrate the application of concepts, identify each student’s strengths and challenges, provide enrichment opportunities and offer a hands-on approach to learning,” explains Amy Scheer.

Grades JK-8 use the Math in Focus® curriculum, which places problem solving as the center of learning and teaches concepts with a concrete–pictorial–abstract progression through real-world, hands-on experiences.  This is the sixth year for the Math in Focus® curriculum and, according to Ms. Scheer, “It is amazing to see how quickly it helps students build their skills. Their number sense is stronger, and they are better at reasoning through problems and using their knowledge to learn new concepts.”

Building a Strong Foundation

Lower School Math

Students in junior kindergarten through 1st grade participate in Math Workshop regularly. Typically, Math Workshop includes a small group lesson with the teacher plus a variety of activities to complete with a partner that demonstrate the ability to apply knowledge. “Children this age love movement, hands-on work and practicing skills,” says Jenn Gillis, SK Homeroom Teacher. Navigating the Workshop centers also builds time management and collaborative skills and helps students take responsibility for their own learning. “Our goal is to give students a broad foundation in math with no bricks missing. We give them the time they need to build the foundation before they progress vertically into different levels,” Ms. Gillis explains.Throughout the Lower School grades, students use hands on math materials to reinforce their understanding of essential concepts such as number sense, place value and order of operations.

Lower School Faculty also honor the MICDS Parent-School Partnership by hosting Math Mornings in each grade level that offer parents the opportunity to see firsthand what a math lesson looks like in their child’s grade. Frequent communication with parents is key to “helping parents understand that our goal in math is not just for students to be able to solve a certain type of problem, but additionally, to make sure they can articulate their understanding of concepts and transfer knowledge as they grow and advance to higher levels,” explains Ms. Scheer.

Knowing the Path Ahead

Middle School Math

Throughout the Middle School, the curriculum is aligned with standards to give students and teachers specific feedback on areas of strength and areas to grow. “Our goal was to frame the curriculum in a way that addressed core concepts and also provided students opportunities to self-assess their understanding of those concepts. These self-assessments, combined with our pre-tests, assignments and exams, give us a very clear picture of our students’ progress,” explains Krystal White, 8th Grade Math Teacher.

Teachers and students use a common language to communicate the mastery of standards. Level 1 is minimal mastery; Level 2 is understanding the concept and the ability to apply it with the aid of an example; Level 3 is proficient mastery, the ability to apply it without assistance; and Level 4 is the ability to not only do the work independently, but also teach it and apply the knowledge to a problem the student has never seen before. “A standards-based mindset reminds us as teachers to differentiate to best meet the needs of our students,” Ms. White continues. “It also compels us to give really focused and specific feedback to help students learn how to better understand a concept.” In addition to returning an assignment with a B+ score, for example, the standards are labeled with mastery levels so the students understand where they need to focus their work.

This standards-based approach facilitates the transitions from Lower School to Middle School, and from Middle School to Upper School.

To bridge the foundation laid in Lower School but also accommodate students new to MICDS, 5th grade math offers a mix of new and familiar material. “We know there will be gaps in learning so we meet students where they are and take them further,” says Ally Bergman, 5th Grade Math Teacher. “It is important to offer different ways of learning, including small group work and one-on-one time,” Mrs. Bergman continues.

“Rather than memorizing procedures, we want students to understand what the math is describing, to question each other’s processes and challenge each other,” adds Jody Marberry, 6th Grade Math Teacher., whose students learn about probability and statistics and also get an introduction to algebra and geometry. “Students learn that it’s not a bad thing to run into a challenge – it just means they have to figure out what went wrong. Our kids come to understand that there is not only one way to do math.”

Advancing Together

Upper School Math

In the Upper School, students take Integrated Math in 9th and 10th grade. The curriculum provides a natural flow from Math in Focus®, with courses offered at different levels to meet the varied abilities of students.  Students explore topics related to algebra and geometry in two- and three-dimensions to deepen their understanding of mathematical models and problem solving. They have the option to enroll in Integrated Mathematics 2: With Application, which challenges them to apply basic mathematical concepts to areas of application that focus on the collection of data and the human body. As they progress to 11th and 12th grades, a variety of electives and AP® courses are available, including Math Modeling and Trigonometry, AP® Statistics, AP® AB Calculus and Vector Calculus (also known as Calculus 3), a course that is typically only offered at the college level.

Upper School Math Teacher Al Begrowicz, who teaches Vector Calculus, explains that the course was developed to meet the needs of students who are grade-level accelerated and have completed BC Calculus before senior year.  Mr. Begrowicz prepared the curriculum after researching college curriculum catalogs and meeting with alumni math majors about their Vector Calculus classes. In its first year, 2015-2016, six students enrolled. That number is up to nine in 2016-2017. “One goal is to help the students learn how to read mathematics at an advanced level,” Mr. Begrowicz explains. “We learn by doing, covering current topics, debating how to solve problems and asking questions of each other.” The curriculum integrates topics covered in upper level science courses such as AP® Chemistry. Mr. Begrowicz also uses Maple technology, a statistical software package for advanced mathematics with an interface that facilitates analyzing, exploring, visualizing and solving mathematical problems. “The students have an amazing enthusiasm for learning,” says Begrowicz. “It’s a math teacher’s dream. I am challenged and learning right along with them.”

The math department places priority on conducting assessments in meaningful ways to help students identify their strengths and areas of challenge. “We are always looking for new ways to communicate with families about where students are and where they need to go,” says Ms. Scheer.

STEM education impacts each and every student at MICDS. It is integrated and aligned to provide the strongest possible foundation for them as they grow. In their early years, students experience the wonder of discovery and develop curiosity about the world around them. As they become older, they grapple with increasingly complex challenges and take ownership of their learning. Guided by deeply committed educators, our students develop critical thinking and problem solving skills that they will apply well beyond their years in school, to any field of study they wish to pursue.   

Though faculty will say that curriculum development is always a work in progress, there are already indicators of the program’s success.

On average, enrollment in higher level science electives is 52 percent female, which validates an abundance of research indicating early exposure to STEM disciplines for girls is key to developing their confidence to pursue further study. Interest in AP® courses has been so strong that MICDS added sections in environmental science and applied science topics. Additionally, more than 10 percent of students in the Class of 2017 graduated from the prestigious STARS (Students and Teachers as Research Scientists) program in July 2016. The Class of 2017 is the first to have experienced the new STEM curriculum, and MICDS has consistently had more students selected for the STARS program than any other St. Louis area high school. “I am thrilled to see our students becoming increasingly excited about research and am deeply proud of their participation in STARS,” said Lisa Lyle, Head of School. “Our impressive participation numbers make it clear that more and more students are exceptionally well-served by our STEM curriculum.”