We spent several hours at Starling STEM Pre-K thru 8 school, a part of Columbus Public Schools. While the school building itself is only two years old, Starling is located in an older part of the west side of town – an urban neighborhood that experiences consistent transition of families. However, what is happening inside Starling is transformational – led by Principal William Doermann, the staff and students are focused on STEM, building a strong community and creating life-long learners. Mr. Doermann is clearly the head advocate, creating opportunities for teachers to move outside the traditional classroom both in space and thinking to help prepare students for 21st century careers.
We arrived just before classes started and were greeted by principal, teachers and staff who milled among the students, welcoming them back to school. Smiles were everywhere – it felt welcoming and energetic. We were ready for a great day at school, and the students seemed to agree.
Our goal in visiting schools PAST Innovation Lab has worked with, or is working with, is to learn about the impact PAST’s work has made. Bringing transdiciplinary problem-based learning (TPBL) to schools is a big shift in thinking. As Starling Pre-K teacher Kristin Foster said, “I had to flip a switch and approach teaching in a different way than I had for 10 years.”
Mrs. Foster told us that even four-year-olds have confidence issues, and are afraid to make mistakes at school. With TPBL, her class is using critical thinking skills and growing in confidence – they understand that making mistakes is part of learning – and it’s okay. The Design Cycle, displayed in all the classrooms we visited, clearly lets children know that when you make a mistake you just try again, or Modify, until the problem is solved. Since the focus is on projects not lecture, the children are actively learning. Sometimes it’s chaotic but it’s controlled chaos. Collaboration among students to identify and solve problems starts in Pre-K and never ends.
Next we hit the Kindergarten class where Megan Brown’s students were testing their hypotheses on how far the straw, wood or brick houses they constructed would travel. Based on Three Little Pigs, students built their houses (milk containers with paper straw, popsicle stick wood and lego bricks) while Mrs. Brown created a hairdryer wolf. Based on their first round testing results, students will revise their hypotheses and retest – modify until the problem is solved. These five and six year old students were totally engaged in the process, discussing results and considering changes.
Then we were off to meet Dave Effron, who teaches 6th – 8th grade engineering and computer science. He shared the 10 robot projects students worked on, and they were impressive. From design to coding to electrical and mechanical engineering, the student teams built robots that had to accomplish specific challenges. One replicated a three floor elevator able to stop on each floor as demanded, one was a truck that had to follow a line, dump its load, then back out again…each was remarkable in the degree of coding, testing and collaboration required.
According to Mr. Effron, “Problem-solving for 7th and 8th graders can be frustrating but it leads to achievement. My job is to offer the challenges and then let them figure it out from there. It can look like chaos, but that’s where the fun teachable moments happen.”
Last year the students tragically lost three students, children whose lives were ended far too quickly. Principal Doermann knew the staff needed to help students recognize and deal with their emotions and sense of loss. He decided that using art as an outlet for emotion could be a powerful learning experience. As a memorial to the students lost, the entire student body, students K – 8, worked on an art project. Queen Brooks, an artist and educator, was asked to help direct the project. Ms. Brooks shared that “the school is evidently engaged with students, and teachers support each other” in ways she had not seen before. The fiber artwork they created together is proudly displayed in the school common area.
The last teacher we met, Andrew Bloom, teaches science and was the lead on the Growing SOIL Outdoor Learning Lab (a PAST program) created last school year at Starling. He told us that every discipline – science, math, language arts – has used the lab to offer a new learning environment. Students are allowed, with teacher approval, to spend class time in the lab working on projects or reading. Mr. Bloom and his Outdoor Club, one of several STEM clubs offered at Starling, has taken on the role of maintaining the lab. Although there has been some vandalism on the property, students are leading the way, asking non-Starling people to respect their school and their learning lab – an important step in changing the culture of their community. Additionally the lab created opportunities to partner with neighbors, including parents who help maintain the area. (By the way, we first met Mr. Bloom in his classroom filled with three classes of eighth graders, who were totally into his dry ice and gummy bear demonstration. Teacher and kids all had fun while learning.)
Finally we met with a couple of groups of students from 5th, 7th and 8th grades. To a student, they were proud of their school, excited about their future and supportive of each other. The 8th graders were proud to have mentored the younger kids, as they did with the school art project. Because Starling is only two years old, every student had gone to school somewhere else and each said Starling is the best. Why? Because they do projects, solve problems, work together, and are excited about their own future. Our tally shows that of the ten students, each who said they planned on going to college, we have five future engineers, one doctor, one biologist, one astronomer and one undecided (not indifferent, just so many great opportunities for him to pursue).
Starling is on its way to being a leader in STEM education in Columbus, OH. As Mr. Doermann said, “STEM at Starling is an inclusive process. For students it’s real-world learning, and parents are excited to see their children learn and grow. Working with PAST has meant the school climate and culture had to change dramatically. Our students are active and independent learners. PAST helped us do this.”
What’s next for Starling? Mr. Doermann and his team have applied for and hope that Starling is part of a program that sends student experiments into space to be carried out by the space shuttle astronauts. Another school-wide project that students, faculty and staff will work on together, creating challenges and solving problems. Who knows, there may be a future aeronautical engineer, astronaut or astrophysicist inspired by the project.
See a portion of our interview with Mr. Doermann here.