Defined STEM – Illinois Community High School Dist. 117


A Science-focused district finds the right curriculum and assessments to prepare students for NGSS.

When you ask high school students in Lake County, Illinois what their career goals are, you may be surprised by how many of them answer “scientists”. However, the Associate Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for Community High School District 117, David Bain, isn’t surprised at all. “Our community values science and the district has always been innovative in our instruction," said Dr. Bain, a former scientist. “We’ve adopted an authentic, hands-on pedagogy that encourages students to explore, ask questions, and discover answers in ways that practicing scientists do every day.” That has led to nearly every student taking at least one AP course, with over 50% taking AP or advanced electives in science before graduation and 40% of the district’s students identifying themselves as future science majors.

Even though the district had such a strong foundation in the sciences, during the summer of 2014 Dr. Bain was concerned about the transition to Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards. In particular, he felt like the district’s existing curriculum lacked the types of authentic science tasks needed to build students’ skills. He was also frustrated with the science assessments that were being used to authentically measure the practices of science and the students understanding of cross cutting concepts, as described in the NGSS. Dr. Bain wanted assessments that gauged students’ abilities to analyze problems, create experiments, and problem solve.

Community High School District 117 is located in Lake County, Illinois, approximately halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. Community High School District 117 is located in Lake County, Illinois, approximately halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Performance Tasks that are truly up to the task.

In Dr. Bain’s search for what he wanted for District 117’s teachers and students, he stumbled upon Defined STEM. The first thing that attracted Dr. Bain’s attention was the types of careers that Defined STEM uses in their videos and lessons. According to Dr. Bain, “Most science curricula use the well known science careers, like doctors and forensic scientists. Defined STEM goes beyond those stereotypes and shows students a wider range of possibilities. Jobs like building rooftop gardens or a wind technician. These show students real, every day uses of science.”

Beyond the videos, Dr. Bain found the types of Performance Tasks he’d been dreaming of. Defined STEM’s Performance Tasks are built from the UBD (Understanding By Design) framework and present real-world problems within the context of a career or industry. Performance Tasks represent cross-curricular topics and assess students’ reading, writing and analysis skills. Exactly what Dr. Bain was hoping to find!

Support for teachers and 1:1 teaching

District 117’s two high schools began using Defined STEM lessons in core science classes during the 2014-15 school year. “Our science teachers have embraced Defined STEM,” shared Dr. Bain. “Our district uses the UBD framework so there was instantly a comfort level among teachers with the lessons and a willingness to give the program a chance. The UBD framework makes it really easy for them to supplement their lessons with Defined STEM.”

Another aspect of Defined STEM that has caused teachers to adopt the program so readily is the editable rubrics. Teachers can easily download any lesson’s rubric and edit it to their specifications. “We place an undue burden on teachers to develop amazing curriculum and then deliver it in innovative ways. That’s too much for even the most exceptional teachers,” said Dr. Bain. “Defined STEM gives our teachers a leg up. They’ve got great curriculum to work with that they can customize and modify. It saves them time so they can focus on working with and teaching their students.” Defined STEM has also provided much-needed curriculum for District 117’s new 1:1 technology program. “In addition to my search for the types of Performance Tasks I felt our students needed, I was looking for high quality digital content,” stated Dr. Bain. “Most of what I saw before Defined STEM was traditional textbooks that were available electronically. Defined STEM is digital-first, and it shows.”

Teaching and assessing the skills that really matter

As District 117 approaches testing season, Dr. Bain is feeling confident that students will do well with NGSS. “Using Defined STEM, students have gotten a lot of practice applying scientific knowledge, problem solving, collaborating, persevering, and communicating. Defined STEM’s assessments measure all of these soft skills so teachers are really aware where their students may need extra help.“

Dr. Bain and District 117 plan to expand the use of Defined STEM into more science courses in the coming school year. He’d also like to explore the use of the program in social studies and math as a resource for writing with informational text, writing arguments, and using primary source documents. “We feel like Defined STEM was designed for our district,” stated Dr. Bain. “It provides exactly what our teachers need to support our students in their scientific learning. I think lots of our future scientists will look back and thank their high school science teachers for giving them such a rich, real experience.”


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