P21LogoHorizontalRGBtmThe following is a guest blog post from CEM partner Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s P21Blogazine


Driving Question: What makes a STEM School

What makes a STEM school? That is the question that is most often asked. I have literally sat on so many panels (K12,Higher Ed, political, policy, and industry), participated in meetings from the White House to the schoolhouse, been active in research think tanks and included in numerous case studies to define what STEM is and what makes a STEM school and we are still asking this question.  Although some are attempting to answer this question by justifying the literal acronym for the taxonomy of STEM, I believe this is too simplistic and takes away from the true mission and meaning of STEM.

Because this blog gives me the chance, I will use my 10 years as a highly successful, inclusive, whole STEM school practitioner to present my answer to this question. I have told the beginning of this story thousands of times, but it bares repeating now as another STEM story is filling the the ears of some and attempting a new, exclusive definition in an attempt to hoist selective STEM schools as the Gold Standard for STEM.  As a passionate STEM proponent for ALL I take issue with this attempt to define STEM as good only for the affluent and already successful student. This post will explain why.


In 2006, the initial STEM campaign was launched in Texas as well as in a few other States to address the shortage of STEM workers entering into the workforce. The message delivered expressed a dire shortage of minority and underrepresented workers needed to close the STEM gap. Our charge as pioneer STEM leaders and educators was simple, yet daunting: to get underrepresented students to take more science, technology, engineering, and math courses in order to help expose them to STEM curriculum and develop an interest and desire to pursue STEM careers and STEM college pathways.  In fact, in order to be a designated a State STEM school in the few States that had designations, one had to meet qualifying indicators to serve a majority of underrepresented students that qualified as low socioeconomic status and have an inclusive open enrollment school with no selective criteria to attend. We had our mission and for the most part implementation was left to individual schools how best to do this.

As the architect of this new inclusive whole Texas STEM (TSTEM) school design, I needed to attract underrepresented students who for the most part were not successful in math and science, had little interest in STEM to leave their current school. They had to join this new STEM school to take more math and science courses, close the achievement gap, have student success where there had been none before, and continue to meet the higher operating standards of success with good attendance, less discipline, high graduation rates, and increased high-stakes student test scores.  As an experienced high school principal, I knew there was only way to make this happen and that was to redesign the entire STEM high school concept to meet all these needs and make it truly an inclusive whole STEM school.

With help, I designed, implemented and opened one of the first 31 STEM schools in Texas. Little did I know then that there were only a few hundred STEM schools across the country at that time and very few schools, if any to model STEM after. This STEM school redesigning phase shaped my whole definition of STEM and still drives my passion of STEM to this day.


How was I going to find underrepresented students who had not been successful in math and science to s school that would ask them to take more math and science? This was the crux of the challenge. Being one of the first STEM schools in the country, I knew we had to have a story that would be a model for others. That part was easy. We were going to take all students without any selection criteria, give them more science, technology, engineering, math, and they were going to be successful.

More wasn’t enough. As part of my redesign efforts, I had to answer a nagging question. Why were these students for the most part unsuccessful in math and science,  especially with the countless hours and attempts at interventions provided in their traditional schools? The traditional direct teach model of instruction was part of the culprit. Many of these students were either bored, lost, or disengaged from lecture “sit and get” and the worksheets that followed.  Our answer was to change how we taught and helped these students learn not only more math and science, but math and science that was more rigorous. The answer came in a synthesis of practices which provide a new model of instruction and other ingredients that would change how the students learned.

  • Project-Based Learning. The first redesign STEM was in pedagogy from traditional direct teach to Project Based Learning. Curriculum would be delivered in teacher-made authentic projects designed with students’ interests at the core of their inquiry. These projects grouped students to work and learn collaboratively. Projects were active, hands-on learning experiences that not only provided the required knowledge, but also the opportunities for the application of that knowledge to solve authentic problems. This 100% PBL implementation would provide a different way of  learning for each student in an average of 50 projects a year.
  • 21st Century Essential Skills. After further questioning STEM industry executives asking “What makes a person successful in today’s organizations?”, I found that  the 21st Century “ESSENTIAL” skills of written and oral communication, collaboration, critical thinking/problem solving, and creativity/self efficacy/agency were almost unanimous nominees as the most important qualities of a successful employee. I was told by industry leader after leader, “We will teach them what they need to know about our company and products. We cannot teach them these real essential skills when they come to us.”

I concluded A STEM school must incorporate all of these 21st century essential skills to be designed, implemented, and assessed in units of learning. I ensured that we incorporated these essential 21st century skills in every project so as to prepare students for the real world by implementing these essential learning outcomes in every project. These outcomes were easily measured using a created rubric for each outcome as well as the observable student’s progress in public speaking skills, direct ownership of each project, and the cooperation within each group of students to ensure all group members were successful as well as each student’s voice in choice was heard in the end products.

  • A Learning First Schedule. A critical STEM redesign change was the easiest to communicate with the addition of rigorous science, technology, engineering, and math courses for all students. What was not easy was implementation of additional classes within the confines of a school day and the approved district school calendar while determining the PBL scheduling and how that would work in an all PBL environment.

The challenge to most STEM schools, including mine, was to implement a schedule that affords students who had not been academically successful more STEM classes, the  remediation opportunities to close their achievement gap and enough time in a class to make progress on projects. These time changes had to ensure that students in need of more assistance did not feel punished or undeserving by double blocked math and science classes when classes were single period. All students deserved a schedule that was not determined by the athletics or band periods or the bus schedule of other schools, but started with academics first.

As an inclusive whole STEM school what was needed was a schedule that took in academics first. A STEM school needs to be able critically analyze traditional school systems and redesign one and all  if needed to meet the students’ academic needs before school bus and sports needs. In all my years as a traditional school principal, I had created many types of schedules, but this was a different situation and required the ability to look critically at systems and then redesign systems to meet the academic needs. Therefore, I created an accelerated trimester schedule. By accelerating their course work in the trimester schedule, students were able to receive a full year credit after the first and second trimesters.  Since most core classes were integrated, students would received a full year credit in 2 courses. This left a 3rd trimester to either offer remediation or additional classes.

What transpired after the new schedule’s implementation changed the educational paradigm. Once bored students, now engaged into PBL all day, every day found the projects so engaging that student success flourished and we have never had enough students needing a remediation course to offer one. Therefore, we were able to add more STEM classes and most students were able to graduate with 5-6 years of Math, 6-7 years of Science, and 6-7 years of Engineering.

Finally I noted how our targeted students were bored with the textbooks, made up situations, and no real connections and no answers to their question “Why do we need to learn this?” Therefore, I intentionally did away with content teaching organized in departmental silos and called for integrated contents with team teaching situations. These allowed teachers to integrate projects with real world authentic problems and questions that students could actively engage with.  All projects were designed by the teachers using the State Standards with online research as the key component of each project. Textbooks disappeared.  We Implemented 1:1 technology that was seamlessly integrated throughout the school as all course work was put on a learning platform so that students and staff could use technology as the all pervasive invisible tool.


There is a recent set of voices that believe the easy answer to “What is a Stem School?” question is simply to identify STEM schools based upon the acronym and the taxonomy of S.T.E.M. Their answer is to implement additional rigorous Math and Science classes. This they argue is the difference between a comprehensive high school and a STEM school. As evidence, they point to highly selective STEM schools that have the financial resources to hire more staff and add numerous STEM courses to a “deserving” population of students  who are admitted based upon set criteria of test scores, grades, aptitude tests, recommendations, references, past behavior and attendance and sometimes having enough money to attend and/or live at the school. These voices highlight these high performing selective STEM schools as the pinnacle of what a STEM school is and should be. They are calling these schools “The Gold Standard of STEM Schools”.

As a seasoned educational change agent and STEM advocate, I absolutely believe all students should have the benefit of additional rigorous math and science classes.  I do believe this is true for all students including students at highly selective STEM schools. However, I find it disingenuous and polarizing to claim these highly selective STEM schools to be the pinnacle of STEM schools.  Most selective schools are self-appointed as STEM schools with no official designation. They serve a selective high achieving student population that could be successful in any school environment.

If STEM were just about adding more STEM classes or selecting students who already are successful, it would be easy to define a STEM school. Where are the challenges of serving underrepresented low socioeconomic youth? The closing the STEM gap by students traditionally not successful in math and science? Increased graduation rates of 1st generation college going students? Where is the story?

Most inclusive STEM schools lack the capability or authority to be highly selective and often have to overcome many years of student challenges, learning gaps, and teacher preparedness to provide STEM opportunities. These are the schools that look to engage students by looking for Edison’s “better way.” PBL, authentic personalized learning, and fully incorporated 21st Century essential skills of the real world, all work to create curriculum that engages and provides opportunity for real world authentic problems in place of obsolete methods for flooding students with information to memorize. These inclusive STEM schools use technology seamlessly as the invisible tool of student inquiry for promoting in and exploring ways to provide additional STEM opportunities such as additional rigorous math and science and engineering classes, internships, industry partnerships, STEM clubs,  and student engagement. In these lie the stories of how inclusive STEM school successfully close the STEM gap.


In a final analysis, one cannot expect the opportunities available to students in a rural low income areas to be the same as those in a wealthy suburban areas, but should any of these students be denied learning opportunities in a whole school devoted to STEM? I contend that whole STEM schools that close the achievement gap, increase student awareness of STEM, spark the imagination and interest in STEM and offer STEM classes in ways that engage the students are what STEM is all about. When these inclusive, whole STEM schools serve underrepresented students through redesigned schools for the 21st Century’s authentic personalized STEM learning, show data for student success against great odds, they should be held as the Gold Standard for what makes a STEM school. They are what answers our driving question.


After a year of designing and planning, the door to Manor New Technology High School opened in 2007, an Inclusive Whole STEM School and was awarded the distinction of a Texas Designated STEM School. Manor New Technology High School has been recognized as a national STEM school for student success, graduation rates, 1st generation college going rates, and college persistence rates. The design of a 100% project based learning public high school that focused on STEM curriculum and 21st century essential skills was recognized by President Obama in his 2013 visit for the successful PBL STEM practices and the positive impact the school’s design had on student achievement. Manor New Tech was noted as a National Model for High School Redesign as highlighted in the $300 Million Race to the Top Proposal and recognized by Harvard University at the Achievement Gap Initiative in response and recognition for closing the achievement gap. Furthermore, in his March 3, 2010 speech, US Secretary Arne Duncan highlighted Manor New Technology High School as a “model school for reaching underserved youth”.

The school has been selected by many organizations including The Partnership for 21st Century Learning as an exemplar model of 21st Century Learning. There are many more highlights that an inclusive whole STEM high school design like Manor New Tech could show. It is the kind of school that should be considered a STEM School of the highest order.

About the Author

Steve Zipkes, was the founding principal of the STEM award winning and P21 Exemplar High School, Manor New Tech.  He is founder and President of Advanced Reasoning in Education, Inc.  In January, Steve moved to Cedars Next Generation High School in Austin, Texas where he and a faculty cohort are readying that school for a Fall, 2016 opening. He is a Distinguished Educator; Edutopia: School That Works: PBL Recipient; and National STEM Visionary Award 2014 Recipient.

You can read added posts from the P21Blogazine on this site or by subscribing to its RSS Feed at www.p21.org for three times per week posts. Monthly themes connect  21st Century Deeper Learning  and the 4Cs theory and practice.

About Marshal Conley

Marshal Conley is a senior technical assistance consultant and Educational Technology and Innovation lead at the American Institutes for Research. His current work focuses on innovative, technology-infused solutions to improve educator professional learning. He is the Project Director for Connected Educator Month and serves in a leadership capacity on several other projects focused on educational technology for K-12 and adult learners.
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