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Nurturing STEM in Schools for Lifelong Learning

By December 9, 2020December 12th, 2020Featured Articles

Supporting hands-on science programs in our schools has been a significant priority for MBEF over the years. When the world was introduced to the notion of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the new millennium, our district embraced the concept in our schools as well. Recognizing that the workplace and industries were shifting, our school communities joined together to ensure that our students would be prepared. MBEF became, and continues to be, the catalyst to get them there.

Already recognized for notable science programs at the secondary level, the district identified that hands-on science in our elementary schools was a priority. Initially introduced in 2006, credentialed science specialists began working with K-5 students at each elementary school in dedicated laboratories supported by the PTA’s. Hands-on projects aligned with grade-level curriculum suddenly became the norm in our schools and students scored off the charts on standardized science tests with 90% of fifth- graders reporting as advanced or proficient.

Over the years, STEM curriculum has remained a priority for our community. Results from the MBEF biennial survey in 2014, and all subsequent surveys, have proven that the expansion of STEM programming is a significant priority to both parents and teachers. The possibility of strengthening STEM curriculum K-12 through expanding MBMS STEM electives and increasing hands-on project-based educational opportunities throughout the district was within reach with a Paddle Raise dedicated to STEM at the 2015 Manhattan Wine Auction.

With the funding raised, MBEF brought Project Lead the Way (PTLW) training for all K-12 science educators – elementary students through the science specialists, middle school students through current science and wheel classes, and high school students with new specialized courses. At the secondary level PLTW provided new courses in three significant areas – biomedical science, computer science and engineering. The three-year biotechnology program, now in its sixth year, takes students on a rigorous pathway that provides students with an opportunity for practical application of coursework, exposure to team problem-solving situations, and industry internship experience.

The effort to focus on STEM, particularly science, continues to pay off. Last year Mira Costa was named one of the top 5,000 STEM high schools in the United States according to a compilation by Newsweek magazine and Superintendent Mike Matthews credits the district’s ranking at 384th as a direct reflection of Manhattan Beach itself and the districtwide effort focused on bolstering its STEM curriculum and infrastructure. In 2008, voters approved the $68 million Measure BB in order to upgrade the MCHS campus, which resulted in the completion of the state-of-the-art Math and Science building in 2015.

Matthews also recognizes MBEF’s key role in district-wide growth in STEM programs, and notes that one key constituency driving the push has been the students themselves. “It has been our students and their desire for more STEM that has changed the high school and the middle school,” Matthews said. “Because of student interest, we have added STEM electives, including engineering, robotics, environmental science, and computer programming – and students are thriving in them.” This continuously growing interest is a direct result of the opportunities for hands-on learning at the elementary level.

In 2014, MBEF introduced the Teacher’s Driving Innovation (TDI) grant program, now supported by Northrop Grumman specifically for STEM-based projects. Past projects include inspiring concepts like robotics, solar-powered boats, 3D printers, coding, weather balloons, virtual reality, and drones – all spearheaded by the interests and dedication of MBUSD educators. This year, MBMS teacher Tanya Sanchez helped lead the application process for TDI grants to support the use of Explore Learning’s Gizmos – online learning tools and lessons correlated to common core and state standards – to reach more students through interesting teaching techniques.

These days, the hands-on learning opportunities rely on more preparation by the student and parent in distance learning but they are still viable outlets for exploring. Elementary Science Specialists help break up the monotony of the Zoom day and are often called out as the best part of the week. Science Specialist Connie Liu shared that during distance learning, the collaboration between her and her colleagues occurs on a daily basis to plan labs that will positively impact students. Ensuring that the science labs complement what students are learning in class is more challenging with the hurdles in distance learning, but they are still able to coordinate labs to meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The fifth-grade owl pellet dissection lab – an oldie but goodie – continues to be a favorite. With the support of MBEF, the PTA and parents, students were able to get owl pellet dissection materials for the incredible lab that meets the essential requirements of science instruction – multiple NGSS standards, learning and fun! Liu shares that these hands-on experiences help to inspire future scientists while they’re young, in order to motivate them to scaffold their learning as they get older.

Expanding the realm of science into the virtual world has been vital to instruction at the secondary level as well, and the search for resources has led to some wonderful discoveries on what is available to educators. According to Chemistry teacher, Teresa Nielsen, a program called “Skype a Scientist” has allowed MCHS teachers to have experts in the field “visit” Zoom sessions and present their research and academic experiences. Dissections of a chicken, “eco bottles” that signify a mini-ecosystem or microcosm, and Zoom breakout rooms to better understand periodic trends and other scientific phenomena are all regular occurrences.

For high school students enrolled in a laboratory science, the MBEF-funded Science Lab Assistant, Karen Cunningham, helps ensure teachers and students can maximize class time by setting up laboratory experiments in person and online. According to Chemistry teacher, Nieslen, Ms. Cunningham’s support is the reason why the department can continue to conduct labs with their students during distance learning – she offers additional supervision, suggestions to improve lab protocols, track inventory and materials, reorders supplies as needed, assists with lab setup and cleanup, and keeps the entire process organized.

Today, twenty years after STEM became part of the world’s vernacular, the support of science continues to have a major impact on student learning and progress in the 21st century. Elementary Science Specialist Susan Holton emphasizes that science “is best learned by hands-on discoveries…we bring science to life where students work with materials, experiment, make discoveries, find connections to the real world, and experience the joy of science.” It is this strong foundation in critical thinking and analytical skills that develop our students into competitive players in science-related majors and future STEM careers. This didn’t happen with one teacher or one initiative – it took decades of community support to strengthen STEM in our district. Even if a student’s personal connection or passion for science is limited, everyone can make a connection to science with hands-on, project based learning, according to Connie Liu. Our MBUSD science educators are prepared to help each student along the path.


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