The DNA of a STEM Academy

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DNA of a STEM School

Amanda Fox


The STEM Academy at Bartlett

Fox talked about the DNA of a STEM school, wearing a DNA inspired dress to do it. She talked about STEM as a trans-disciplinary approach, and talked about her journey over the last few year as a social science teacher, arguing that STEM had to change year after year.

It was interesting to hear about the journey; how she’d been involved in hiring and creating the team and the changes that had taken place in such a short time. I was interested I want to know more about how to make STEM actually work in a subject orientated culture. Some of the things she stressed were:

  • Adaptability. Don’t keep doing things that aren’t working
  • Content comes after you teach it for a while
  • Rigorous curriculum: Problem solving, trans-disciplinary, story-centred, real world
  • A story-centred curriculum
  • ‘Tell your story before someone else does it for you’

They set ‘grand challenges’ that run over nine week intervals, solving a problem like creating a ‘planetary rover’, renewing urban infrastructure. They used iTunes U courses and student worked through the course. Students also worked in teams, fostered community involvement and had on-site visits and field trips.

Session Details

STEM DNA: Design, Narrative, Application

We all know what STEM stands for…Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics…but what does it look like in action? How can you design transdisciplinary, problem based curricula that is unique to your school and community?

Amanda share the narrative of what it’s like to be teacher in a STEM public school; how we began; what is the curriculum, and how in just three years they have evolved to be considered THE top middle grades certified STEM program in the nation. Decode the genome of their transdisciplinary approach, and learn what you can transplant to your own program.

Amanda Fox, Film and Broadcasting Instructor, The STEM Academy (USA)



Driving an innovation industry

Driving an innovation agenda
Ian Williamson

Williamson began his talk about. innovation by emphasising how quickly things can dramatically change.

Only 21% of the 1982 Fortune 500 companies were still on the list in 1982. (aka Kodak and Polaroid and Motorola) He asked the question, ‘why didn’t Sony invent the iPod?’

He argued that no one is immune- ‘Higher education is now ground zero for disruption.’

The biggest barriers to innovation:

  • risk averse culture
  • lengthy development time
  • not enough good ideas

Innovation requires leadership and recognise that different types of knowledge are needed for invention and harnessing (from thought to implementation). He argued for collaboration and integration, using Apple as an example.

Re-imagining engagement

This week I attended a workshop meeting looking at student engagement, organised by AITSL under the Learning Frontiers banner and the headline: ‘Imagine a world where kids are as eager to learn throughout school as they were when they arrived.’

The session was opened by David Jackson (innovation unit, UK) who argued for spaces where principals, schools and teachers had  ‘a licence to do different’.

He made the case for change and the problem: many students are disengaged, and many more are un-engaged. I think the latter is most true in my experience. And he gave some facts that claimed that the further students go through school the lower engagement levels are in terms of:

  •  Participation
  • Belonging
  • Attendance
  • Cognitive engagement

Significantly, and the reason for this was not explored, the lower the SES, the lower the levels of engagement, although it wasn’t clear what ‘engagement’ actually meant either. I think it was in terms of the first three dot-points above, which are blunt measurement instruments to me. However, this issue does seem to matter; engagement influences prospects of success 20 years later according to Australian research, but then you also think – ‘chicken or egg’?

One fact was blunt and quite shocking: 1.2 million American students drop out of school each year  Over ninety per cent said they wanted more ‘real life’ experiences.

So, What is engagement?

 It’s clearly more than attendance, conformity, behaviour and IS about energy and enthusiasm for learning, beyond school, including taking responsibility. One way of seeing engagement learning is the 4P model below:

4P Learning is engaging

  • Purposeful
  • Placed
  • Pervasive
  • Passion-led

I really liked Jackson’s image of ‘school is the base-camp for learning – where you get charged up, and extend from’.

AITSL intend moving beyond a community of practice, to a community of engagement, and beyond that, a community of interest. They are creating ‘Lab sites’ and ‘Developer Sites’ (we used to call these schools, and I have reservations about the idea of school as an experimental lab). AITSL’s aim in this project:  to increase the proportion of Australian students who are deeply engaged in their learning, through the development of teaching and learning practices that promote engagement, beginning with professional practices.

I was concerned that in the new ‘hubs’ and ‘labs’ they intend creating that AITSL seems very much in favour of ‘new players in education’, ‘inside and outside the system’.  That raises alarm bells named ‘Pearson’ et. al.  for me, and I asked them about that over coffee. I was told that they were aware of some these reservations and were working on framing some appropriate boundaries around the commercialization of education in this space.


Much of the thinking AITSL were presenting on engagement was based on work from the Innovation Unit, presented in Re-Designing Education Systems.though interestingly they have moved away from the key elements of ‘collaboration’ and ‘technology in that work, arguing that those elements should be universal and implicit. The four elements they agreed on were:

 Co-created – adults and students as powerful resources for design of learning

Connected – real world contexts, contemporary

Personal –  build from student passions and capabilities, personalised

Integrated – Integration of subjects, students and contexts

We then spent some times in groups, plotting out imaginary sample networks and hubs that might develop out of this project. A really interesting morning and it will be fascinating to see where this goes, and whether they do avoid the sharks that are circling around education.

Schools involved in 2014 will be announced before Christmas. You can follow the conversation on the Twittisphere at #learningfrontiers

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Innovation for Fun and Profit

This was a keynote given to the AAIBS Conference in Adelaide by Marty Gauvin.

Marty is a technology entrepreneur who focused on innovation. He began by talking about his own school experiences at St Peters College in Adelaide. He was asked to advice the Curriculum Committee at the school when was still at school, which said something about the school and him.  I don’t think he made enough of the kind of opportunity that was for him, though he did call it one of those decisive moments of his life.

He described his own journey, led by the phrase ‘Carpe Diem’, in building up Hostworks, an innovative Australian company, which he sold in 2008.

I liked his slide about the essential collaboration: innovator, implementer, administrator or manager, Leader


This has implications for how we innovate in schools; particularly when we think that lower levels of innovation come with higher levels of ‘comfort’. He also talked about the ‘risk gap’; what you are willing to risk. You need the idea, the team, the time and the resources.

Marty’s keynote got a good response and generated plenty of questions, though not the one I would have liked to ask if I wasn’t so far from the roving microphone: ‘is it possible for schools to foster innovation? And how?

Innovation, the digital revolution and education

Mark Whittard (Toshiba Information Systems) opened up Expanding Horizons on the last morning.

It’s hard for a hardware manufacturer to have something meaningful to say about education; even Apple struggle with that. And Mark Whittard mentioned as much when he began his keynote.

We got a potted history of Toshiba and their history (130 years!) and their diversity. He claims that Toshiba invented the double coil electric light bulb in 1921 and flash memory in 1984.

Whittard talked about some of the coming innovations: fuel cells in 2009, fast-charging (super charge) batteries and their commitment to environmental values, becoming the ‘greenest computer supplier’ this year.

One interesting thing was that over 80% of the education market were now ordering the tablet pc now; which is higher than I though and promising in terms of the kinds of education specific.

He talked about, and then talked down, the new small computers and said they weren’t recommended for the education market. I’ve talked about the ASSUS(?) and that kind of thing before; I’ve love to have one for travelling, but I couldn’t last long without a full blown machine I don’t think.

I liked Bruce Dixon’s closing bit here too, talking about the original conceptualisation of the notebook computer as a tool for education, or as one early notebook computer put it, as ‘an instrument, whose music is ideas’.

Where are we on the (educational) hype cycle?

I liked this cool looking graph from Techcrunch today, not just for its look at technology (I agree that tablet pcs are probably about to get some real impetus in the next year or so) but also because of its illustration of that cycle of innovation, expectation, hope, disappointment, small movements forward.

How might we apply it to educational technologies: blogs, wikis, IWBs, twitter, LMS systems? Or how might we apply it to educational ‘reforms’ or ‘revolutions’? Where does statewide testing, league tables, peformance based pay or the debate between phonics and whole-language sit on this continuum?