Sierra Verde is a S.T.E.M. Academy, meaning that in addition to teaching the CORE content areas, we also place a high emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Our theme for the upcoming year is I3: Integrated, Innovative, Inquiry. Throughout your classes, you will notice that math will also be a part of science, and that social studies will be included during language arts. This is what integrated means; your teachers will involve all the subjects together to help you learn the big picture. Your teachers will be asking you to generate new ideas, problem-solve, and reflect, not only about what you are learning, but to consider how you are learning. Working as a team will be a key part of your education, and our goal is to prepare you for the skills necessary to be successful at Sierra Verde and the 21st Century.
History of STEM
Sierra Verde became a STEM Academy in 2008, with a strong classroom focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. The school has centered its STEM focus over the past four years around the school theme I3: Integrated, Innovative, Inquiry. On a daily basis, teachers implement STEM across the curriculum in an interdisciplinary, integrated, multi-classroom approach to STEM instruction. Teachers embed all subjects to help students comprehend “big ideas” and integrated themes. Throughout the day, students experience math as a part of science, art, music, and even PE.
In 2011, the staff created VIPERS Problem-Solving strategies. The VIPERS Strategies (V- Visualize and Plan; I- Investigate Options; P- Problem Solve; E- Evaluate and Explain; R- Reason and Reconnect; S- Share What You Know) were created by teachers after recognizing our students had a significant gap in their ability to problem-solve. A team of teachers researched effective problem-solving steps and then the entire staff developed the VIPERS steps. These key strategies soon became a movement on the Sierra Verde campus. Not only do students know and use the strategies on a daily basis, they are part of the SV culture. A 6th grade science teacher, who has been on our campus since 2003 stated, “Since the VIPERS strategies inception, it has been easier each year to implement problem-solving practices, especially during investigative and scientific process projects.” These strategies have allowed teachers to make deep connections to the nine Mathematical Practices from the AZ College and Career Readiness Standards, which require students to make sense of problems and persevere in problem solving, construct viable arguments, look for and make use of structure, and reason abstractly and quantitatively. Not only do the strategies assist students in effectively solving problems and thinking critically, but the staff has discovered that the problem solving process directly aligns to the engineering process. These problem-solving steps require students to think like engineers, are aligned to Honeywell and NASA strategies, and transfer seamlessly to the critical thinking steps required in ELA contents. The VIPERS strategies are displayed and practiced in every classroom and content area on the Sierra Verde campus.
The next step in the journey led to the aforementioned theme, I3: Integrated, Innovative, Inquiry. After realizing that STEM was not meant to be contained in a single elective, the staff worked together to create meaningful integrated units in which they could make connections for students and use the VIPERS strategies across curriculums. The collaborative work that arose from this planning year has sustained as teachers continue to create newly-integrated units of instruction for students. For example, the 8th grade team is planning a unit that integrates a CSI crime scene from science with social studies where students will be tried in the criminal court, using facts learned about the bill of rights. To wrap it up, students will play the role of journalists (for their ELA course) to inform others about the events, connecting their learning to the real world.
Outdoor STEM, The Innovation
Sierra Verde decided to take STEM to the next level in 2013 by creating a three-year plan to implement Outdoor STEM. After visioning with community partners, parents, staff, and students, we created a plan that would allow students to participate in the creation of outdoor spaces, while partnering with local businesses and community organizations.
Our first project began with a donation of a desert tortoise to our school. Knowing Sheldon, our newly-adopted tortoise, needed a home, our eighth grade STEM class used their VIPERS strategies. First, they Visualized and Planned and soon took charge of designing a habitat. Groups of students Investigated Options by completing tasks such as researching the desert tortoise, writing grants, and contacting organizations. Students wrote and awarded grants from the Arizona Diamondbacks and Arizona Public Service, fully funding the project. During the process, the scientists from the Geological Survey consulted with our students and put them in touch with Game and Fish to adopt our tortoise. The Herpetological Society and a botanist from the Botanical Gardens came out to help students determine the 6sex of the tortoise and choose the correct vegetation for the habitat. Next, students Problem Solved with the information gleaned and designed a habitat using Google Sketchup. They Evaluated their plan by meeting and consulting with local landscapers. Next, they Reflected and Connected what they had learned and began construction of the habitat in partnership with a landscaping company. Students dug footers for the habitat and removed rock to prepare the area. Finally, students Shared what they had learned by marketing the habitat through the creation of a website, speaking about the project at school events, and developing next steps.
The following year, students designed an outdoor STEM lab. Again, following the VIPERS strategies, students worked with local companies to design the space, marketed the project, wrote grants, sold engraved bricks, and helped install a new outdoor STEM lab, the first in the district.
Outdoor STEM has reached a new level of collaboration this year as we wanted to extend the projects beyond the middle school classrooms. Through our STEM connections via the Arizona Sci Tech association, we have partnered up with Camelback High School, a school across the valley, and asked their student engineers to embark on an incredible collaborative project - The Sierra Verde Simple Machines Art Garden. Our middle school art students designed the space and presented their proposals to the school’s campus improvement team which consists of business leaders in STEM, staff, students- our chief science officers, parents, and administration. The team discussed the drawings and the appealing pieces of their work and then joined the students with a local architect who met weekly with the students to help the students create one collaborative plan, aligned to architectural standards and regulations. The architect then presented the plan to the campus improvement team and the students presented their plans to the staff.
At the same time, Mrs. Anderson's 5th grade science students were given the task of creating simple machine models with household items that had a practical function. Students created simple machines using the following elements: a wedge, a pulley, a wheel and axle, a screw, a lever, and an inclined plane. One hundred and twenty incredible inventions were submitted by our students and 7 were selected to go into "production". Mrs. Andersen said, "The creativity and engineering that went into these models was an impressive STEM achievement by our students and shows that the kids understand how to apply what they learn into practical real world uses." Camelback High School Engineering Teacher, Arnie Edwards, then gathered his 10th, 11th, and 12th grade engineering class students to review the models and assign teams to fabricate the 5th grade selected concepts into durable materials that can withstand outdoor display in our Arizona weather. His students showcased their 3D printer, plasma cutter, solar and welding capabilities to our staff. Mr. Edwards said, "Camelback High School students will take the 5th grade designs and interpret them into long lasting interactive models to be showcased outdoors." Mr. Edwards’ students said repeatedly as they were reviewing the models, "A ten year old designed this? Wow!" Last month, the high school fabrication teams met with the seven selected 5th grade designers via Skype. The kids set up the communication lines to proceed on their projects and asked production questions. Since then, the student teams have been communicating via video conference to consult on the design. We hope to present all 7 of these simple machines, achieved by teams that span school districts and age groups, at STEM Night in our new Outdoor Simple Machines Art Garden.
With a clear focus on problem-solving, we realized great increases in student achievement directly following its implementation. The 2012 state AIMS data demonstrated 80% of students meeting or exceeding on AIMS Math, an increase of 5% from the previous year. Additionally, our students had the second highest growth score for a K-8 school in the district for math and 43% of our teachers were in the top 10% for growth in the district for math. The 2013 state AIMS results continued in an upward fashion, with 88% of our students meeting or exceed on AIMS math. Since the implementation of the VIPERS Strategies, our AIMS scores increased in all grade levels at an impressive rate. In the area of reading, scores improved from 90% of students meeting or exceeding to 96%. Math scores improved from 78% to 88% in 3 years. In science, the true growth was shown in the number of students who exceeded in the 2012-2013 school year. 59% of our eighth grade students exceeded on AIMS science, in comparison to a state average of 36%, and 70% of our 4th grade students exceeded on AIMS science, in comparison to a state average of 26%. Our students had the highest growth score for all K-8 schools in the district, with five of our teachers boasting the number one spot for student growth in the district. The results from the spring 2013 AIMS placed our students in the top 1% of schools in the state for academic achievement and growth.
Additionally, all 8th grade students took the ACT Explore Assessment in the fall of 2013. This assessment closely aligns to the standards and gives us a national perspective. The data from the 2012-2013 school year shows that students were above the national mean in English, math, reading, and science. The overwhelming majority of students were not college and career ready, fell into the ‘on cusp’ category, with less than 5% of students ‘in need of intervention.’ Additionally, Sierra Verde students boasted 13 perfect scores.
Sierra Verde maintained its scores in 2014. The state changed assessment in 2015 and we are awaiting results from 2016 which will provide us with our first comparative results since the implementation of the new AZ Merit.
Next Steps, STEMINESS
Moving forward, we want Sierra Verde to be filled with STEMINESS! What is STEMINESS? It’s everything STEM- innovation, inquiry, computer science, challenge, critical thinking, engineering, problem solving….it’s all STEM! The staff was challenged this year to implement STEMINESS in their classrooms. At our first staff meeting, we provided intellectual stimulation and a challenge to participate in one STEM professional development training throughout the year that would allow them to open their minds to new ideas. The ideas that have unfolded throughout the year from staff learning are incredible and innumerable.
Our teachers have embraced Google Education and Google Classrooms are popping up across grade levels and classrooms as teachers learn and share the excitement of online collaboration. Our students are learning what it takes to become a Google intern, aka Noogler, and also participated in Doodle for Google. SV also started off the New Year piloting Google Expeditions, a new product that allows teachers to take their classes on virtual field trips, immersing students in experiences that bring abstract concepts to life and giving students a deeper understanding of the world beyond the classroom. Since then, we have acquired 2 classroom sets of Google Cardboard, are in the process of collecting phones, and are awaiting the release of the app. Our entire school participated in the hour of code, including our youngest Kinder students. Parents were emailing me, telling me how excited their students were to make angry birds fly and create their own video games. We know our students can do it. Our 3rd grade students programmed Lego robots for the first time this year and competed in a competition with middle school students. We are ready to bring computer science to Sierra Verde.
To move forward, we have presented the idea of computer science in all classrooms to our campus improvement team, several early adopters on campus, grade level leads, and district administration. We are hosting a strategic planning meeting in May to research what currently exists for computer science in education around the state and nation, and to vision what it could and should look like for Sierra Verde. Sierra Verde has joined a community of practice through the Arizona SciTech and Intel organizations where we will have the opportunity to connect with schools from around the valley to further explore our ideas for computer science.