Defined STEM - Altar Valley Case Study

Altar Valley School District 51 is a public school district based in Pima County, AZ.


The Problem

  1. How might a comprehensive STEM initiative be used to build prior background in students from a rural community?
  2. How does a prewritten STEM curriculum build efficacy in teachers who may lack content knowledge to effectively teach STEM ideas and content?

When you are a STEM coordinator of a diverse, rural district with limited funds and high hopes for a superior summer school program, you must get creative. As Kathryn Zanin, Altar Valley STEM Coordinator, knows it is a big responsibility to ensure that all students have access to STEM learning year-long…summer being no exception.

Ms. Zanin found the exact program that could relate real world issues to the students in the district; but she still faced 3 challenges:

  1. The content knowledge of teachers, who felt they may not possess the skills needed to guide students in their STEM exploration during the summer
  2. Lack of summer school curriculum for the STEM initiative she wanted to implement.
  3. Budget played a minor role as summer school was supported by the district’s 21st Century Program. However, more funding would allow the program to increase the number of teachers, thus increasing the number of students who can attend and the number of electives to support the whole child.

“My challenge was to find a way to make the summer school STEM program engaging for both students that were mandated to attend the class and students that enrolled because they wanted to explore a new way of presenting lessons called STEM.“ Stated Zanin.

“I needed to make sure I could customize the curriculum using the tasks from Defined STEM that would add uniqueness and relevancy for the diverse classrooms of students in rising 1st grade through 7th grade.”

Zanin found the primary solution to these challenges through Defined STEM, a leading provider of STEM content, which combines a unique set of real-world themed resources to create a “21st Century” learning platform.

The Solution

The solution was to use the unique Defined STEM tasks, in conjunction with the curriculum she wrote, to provide the most engaging summer school her students had ever experienced.

Zanin researched quite a few options before choosing DefinedStem. However, the 28 year teaching veteran knew she was on to something when she discovered the company’s platform Defined STEM.

Defined STEM enables teachers to provide application of knowledge to students through the use of project-based learning, real-world career content, and meaningful reading and writing activities.

She knew her teachers would love Defined STEM’s “performance tasks”, which were built from the UbD (Understanding By Design) framework. These tasks present a real-world problem to be solved within the context of a career/industry. Zanin also knew the students would benefit from the career based videos that frame each task, allowing them to see the task through the career lens. Each task contains “big ideas/understandings”, “essential questions” and “learning outcomes”, which outline what will align with the learning in the task.

Now that she had her learning platform, she set out to create a 16-day holistic and all-inclusive curriculum to increase rigor and relevance and address all of the Arizona state standards for social studies, math, science and writing. She wrote the summer school curriculum and vetted it through multiple lens: Helios, Science Foundation Arizona, Pima County School Superintendent’s STEM Coordinator, and district science teachers to ensure students experienced a highly engaging and quality program.

The 2014 summer school enrollment was at an all time high with 150 students in attendance. The STEM classes were filled to the brim….they even had a waiting list. This summer also had the highest attendance rate due to the high interest and engaging activities.

Concept Maps, A great Way to Assess the STEM Summer School Program

Teachers were asked to have their students complete concept maps three times throughout the program to assess their growth:

  • The concept maps from the 1st day of class revealed students did not posses the age appropriate STEM vocabulary and background knowledge to successfully navigate the curriculum in the fall.
  • The concept maps given on the 7th day of the program demonstrated a marked improvement in vocabulary by all students.
  • The concept maps generated on the 15th day of the program showed students’ academic vocabulary improved significantly and they were able to make connections within the content presented.

One of the most amazing things that came through from this new summer school approach is now, during the regular school year, teachers have noticed and commented that students who participated in the summer school program came to school in the fall more excited and prepared for science. This allows teachers to take students to the next cognitive level of learning without spending extra time developing the background knowledge necessary to be successful with each lesson. “It doesn’t get any better than that!” said Zanin.

“Students have responded extremely well to our new STEM offerings,” stated Zanin. “We are so thankful to have Defined STEM supporting our students and for giving them real-world applications for STEM learning!”

A Partner for the Journey

Moving forward, Zanin said their district plans to continue working with Defined Stem. “The team at Defined STEM has been instrumental in our success. The PD we received and the follow through they provide has made this new transition seamless.”

Her strategy for finding solid partners for STEM advancement is two-fold:

  1. Using the ripple effect concept, Zanin identifies and builds relationships with stakeholders within the district’s community. Allow these experts to be the conduits, which lead to other connections outside the community.
  2. Develop partnerships with people who understand the challenges facing education.

“Change is slow, taking the time to collaborate and build partnerships with like minded organizations leads to success for all students. By choosing to take the district though this journey has allowed students the opportunity to explore the world of STEM as their imaginations ignite with the possibilities of using Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in real world contexts.”



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