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What makes a great STEM school?

4 min read

Career-Technical Education

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As I continue to review, reflect and grow in this STEM era, my mind keeps going back to the same premise over and over again. As educators, we need to stop and think about this one very important question: What makes a great STEM school? Is it just a course, a particular pathway or subject matter, a group of teachers, a commercial program, extraordinary curriculum or something else that clearly defines and spells out success for a STEM school?

This is certainly not an easy answer because of the complexity that surrounds the definition of STEM. For educators, the definition is centered on the ability to show, to teach, to model and to produce a process or product that is more clearly refined than it has been in the past. Businesses would see STEM as making a product better for the consumer so that profit margins are maximized.

If you were to visit any “STEM school,” what would you see? What would be your first impressions? How would you know that students are learning better than at a traditional school? Questions like these will continue to revolve around in your mind as they would for many professionals.

Personally, I am accepting of parents and professionals alike asking questions like these because the more discussion that takes place, the more likely it will be that vast improvements will be instituted in our schools. We all know that there is no such thing as a perfect person nor is there a perfect school. However, we should harness our strengths and use them to our benefit so that our children are more prepared for the 21st century workplace than when they first entered the building.

In attempting to see all sides of this perspective, I have found some common ground that all great STEM schools should encompass. Regardless of the grade level, subject matter, ability or theme, I have identified the following characteristics in these schools:

  1. There is a clear cut and laser focused mission and vision. Where there is ambiguity there is room for separation. Uniformity is critical to the group as a whole and that stakeholders are marching to one specific goal.
  2. Teachers have the freedom to take risks in developing better and more defined lessons. Keeping the status quo never gets one ahead of the curve, and some of the best lessons in life are the ones we’ve learned when we failed.
  3. Students are at the center of the lesson instead of the teacher. When students are engaged in meaningful dialogue and activities, enthusiasm for learning grows exponentially as well as the process.
  4. Real world scenarios are the norm in every lesson. Many teachers and schools today use practical problems as supplemental instead of making them a staple.
  5. Product and project based learning are essential. Today’s students need group activities that are centered on a problem. Too many classes are still doing drill and kill worksheets which are boring our students to death.
  6. Industry certifications that are earned are honed from skill sets. Skill sets should originate from the hard and soft skills that are reinforced in school. Without them, today’s employee will not be able to communicate and produce on a high level, thus inhibiting the company’s bottom line.
  7. STEM must include career and technical education. CTE allows students get closer to the goal line by setting them up with the initial exposure and understanding of how STEM is integrated into the workforce. STEM schools without CTE will pre-date their initiatives back to the 20th century of assembling rather than moving them forward to information and processing.

When enacted, these simple strategies are will catapult any school or college into a great STEM institution and the sooner these strategies are aligned, the sooner students will become prepared for the 21st century.

Aaron Smith is the program director at Aviation Academy, located in Newport News, Va. He is the author of Awakening Your STEM School and has been recognized for his work in Dropout Prevention and STEM. Visit his website at or follow him on Twitter @stemschooldr.

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