Defined STEM - Phoenixville Area School District Case Study


Defined STEM: Cross-curricular, cost-effective, cutting-edge

The Problem

From Old to New: Shifting Course on STEM

In an old steel town just outside Philadelphia, Preston McKnight knew it was time for a change. As the director of curriculum for Phoenixville Area School District
“We had some STEM elements in our curriculum, but it wasn’t very integrated. Science was science, math was math, and we tried to teach a few engineering principles in our technical education classes, but that was it,” said McKnight. “We knew STEM could be so much more, and we wanted our students to experience the integration and multi-layered problem-solving pieces of that.”, he wanted to improve the district’s approach to STEM education.

Since plans for a fully STEM-based school weren’t in the cards, Preston began looking into other options. When he heard about Defined STEM, he was immediately impressed.

“Because there are so many layers to each assignment if you want to push language skills, you can have the kids write a paper. If you want to develop their spatial skills, you can have them build models. There’s something that can connect with every student,” he said.

He shared his ideas about how to use the new curriculum with Dr. Frank Garritano, principal at Phoenixville Area Middle School. Garritano was on board right away.

“We started incorporating Defined STEM quickly with projects in each grade of the middle school,” said Garritano. “The kids took to it instantly.”

Gathering Support from Instructors

McKnight began designing plans for a semester-long STEM course for sixth and seventh graders, as well as a year-long course for eighth-grade students. After training the teachers, he asked them to help him select projects from Defined STEM that would resonate with their students.

Phoenixville Area School District is located in northern Chester county, PA Phoenixville Area School District is located in northern Chester county, PA

“The folks we were asking to engage with the curriculum weren’t necessarily all science-based teachers, so they had some understandable apprehensions about how it would fit into their lessons,” said McKnight. “Obviously, if you’ve been trained as a family and consumer science teacher, that’s what you like to do and want to do, and we were asking them to do something different.”

“Teachers in the middle school served as facilitators, but the students were the real drivers of the projects,” Garritano explained. “Sixth graders worked on an aquarium project, incorporating STEM, while seventh graders worked on constructing and analyzing angles and other aspects of a skateboard park. In eighth grade, students were working on a forensic project.”

Garritano saw a definite change in the eighth graders, for whom this was a whole new approach to teaching STEM subjects. By using Defined STEM Garritano said that students were more engaged with the use of technology and the new teaching approach. School leaders and educators had also incorporated writing and working on writing skills as a big piece of instruction with STEM.

McKnight noted that teachers also showed changes. As they grew to better understand Defined STEM, they saw how many aspects of science, technology, engineering and math still fit within their content expertise. “Defined STEM is very user-friendly and lays everything out for our teachers, from lesson plans and standards alignments to interactive videos. So their apprehension went away very quickly,” McKnight said.

Student Reaction and Next Steps

Middle school teachers were so excited about the new curriculum and the students’ enthusiasm that they began to tell their colleagues in other grades. Soon, the elementary school teachers were interested.

Kyle Worrell, a seventh-grade science gifted class teacher, is helping implement Defined STEM in the elementary schools and is writing the curriculum with the teachers. The program will begin in the 2015-16 school year. The school will start with two projects each year.

“What I like about Defined STEM is how it applies to the real world. They do a good job of providing the idea for projects and the rubrics to connecting them to the standards. Then we write the lessons to make sure everything meets the end product for our schools and district,” said Worrell. “The third grade group is really excited about an ice cream project,” he added.

McKnight said that the district will implement Defined STEM in three different elementary schools to take the place of the schools’ previous science curriculum, which wasn’t allowing the district to serve the students as best as it could. "The switch to Defined STEM is making that possible now", he said.

“What they have created at Defined STEM is so well developed and so affordable,” said McKnight. “I hate to use a term like ‘can’t-miss,’ but it really is that good.”


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