3 min read


A fundamental leadership belief of mine is that you always “Start with WHY.” Many schools and districts launch full speed into reform efforts without a firm grasp on why they are starting in the first place. This leads to a laundry list of failed initiatives, programs and practices because people have to understand “why” before they get to the “how” and “what.”

I have thought a lot about this “why, how, what” framework as my school district embarks on a new initiative. I am privileged to have the unique opportunity to build a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) school from the first brick in the foundation to the curriculum that students will dive into. This process will take several years, and I will document our hurdles, successes, failures and more throughout this journey. I wanted to frame this journey from the standpoint of why we chose STEM. Future posts will look at the curriculum and how the building itself will be a teaching tool.

STEM is not a new term and there is a plethora of resources just one Google search away. Although we are building a new school, you can provide a very rich STEM learning experience without all the construction. We will actually be launching this initiative in two schools — one existing and one new. Our district has worked very hard to bring the concept of college, career and citizen-readiness alive by moving away from test prep and into life prep. This is a bold step forward and one that is not without obstacles. The bottom line is that it is the right thing to do if we are truly serious about educating each student who walks through our doorways.

This approach to educating our students directed us to what I believe is a missing piece in many schools — the notion of relevance. The next time you are in a classroom, try this experiment and see if you do not believe relevance is missing. Walk up to any student and ask them three questions:

  1. What are you working on?
  2. Why are you working on this?
  3. How could you see using this information in the future?

Students have become pretty adept to answering the first question. They typically know what they are working on. The second question is a little trickier for most. The standard answer has to do with the teacher making them do the assignment. That is probably not the ideal response to the “why” question. The third answer elicits little or no response from students of all ages. STEM is built on tackling this relevance problem. Every day is spent working on tasks tied to careers in STEM-related fields.

We also know that the fastest-growing fields in the workplace tie directly to STEM. The major employers in our area are projecting hundreds of jobs openings in the next 10 years that will be filled with people who have a STEM background. These are just a few of the reasons why we chose STEM. In a sense, it seems like STEM chose us. Now that we have established the “why” behind our initiative, we will dive into the foundation for the curriculum in the next post.

Brian Nichols (@bjnichols) is the executive director of school leadership for Newport News Public Schools in Newport News, Va. He was previously the principal of two award-winning Title I K-5 schools. He also was honored with the title Outstanding Young Educator in 2010 by ASCD as well as one of “20 to Watch” in the field of educational technology by the National School Boards Association.