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Building a STEM School - Before STEM was Cool!

Posted by Mark Stansell on Nov 5, 2017 5:52:43 PM
Mark Stansell

In the Spring of 1994 I was teaching first grade at a West Palm Beach elementary school.  My oldest daughter, Alyssa, was in kindergarten at a school in Boynton Beach, where her mother taught. The kindergarten teacher sent home a flier from a nearby Boynton Beach elementary announcing a "Math, Science & Technology Magnet" program that would begin in the fall.

Her mother and I knew that Alyssa loved to get her hands dirty, so we felt like this program would be something interesting to look into.  We made arrangements to attend an informational meeting where the magnet school would share details about their program.

Lucky Me

At the meeting we met Steve Sills - the Principal - and Karen Whetsell - the Assistant Principal - of Poinciana Elementary Math, Science and Technology Magnet School. We heard the story of how leaders within the City of Boynton Beach had convinced the School District to save, rather than raze the school. Steve was hired to lead the turnaround, and he hired Karen to be his right hand - which turned out to be the best hire of his long and storied career. 

Steve and Karen described classrooms rich with integrated curriculum centered on Math and Science concepts. They spoke of a school that would put students before content, and process before product. As I listened to them explain their vision I created a vision of my own, that included me as a teacher at this amazing place. I knew that I wanted to be a part of their story.

At the conclusion of the meeting I asked Karen for an application for my daughter, and then asked her how I could apply to join the staff. My recollection of that conversation was that she was happy that I was asking. Perhaps that's my ego that planted that memory, but I am sticking with the story all the same.

In the following weeks I interviewed and was hired to teach first grade at the school when we opened the Magnet program in the fall. Lucky me indeed!

Preparation is Key

Every good teacher will tell you that planning is the most important aspect of the job. For every hour we spend teaching, we spend 30 to 45 minutes planning and gathering needed materials, oftentimes more.

At the end of summer vacation, most schools bring back teachers one week in advance of students returning in order to allow us time to prepare classrooms and materials. Steve and Karen knew that building a school with a brand new set of curriculum benchmarks and outcomes was going to take some doing. So they brought us back three weeks in advance for that reason.

We partnered with Florida Atlantic University's science education department to prepare us all for a more focused approach to teaching science through reading, writing, and experiential learning.

Rather than spending several days in boring meetings, discussing lunch duty and how to hold parent conferences, we spent the next three weeks at FAU's science labs & our own media center and classrooms, delving into new technologies and materials that Steve and Karen had ordered to get us started on the year. 

We were writing benchmarks and curriculum outcomes years before the State of Florida began adopting their own. The model of planning employed at Poinciana included days of grade-level planning meetings with teachers elbows deep in materials, research, and administrative support to put together activities, experiments, reading and writing materials that supported our STEM centered focus. It was an exciting, dynamic, professional atmosphere that has yet to be duplicated as far as I know.

That Year and Years Beyond

The experience of teaching and learning at Poinciana Math Science and Technology Magnet School was career changing. We were trusted to create content that was meaningful for our students as Steve & Karen were able to give us the materials, time and resources to bring STEM learning into our classrooms. Our classrooms were rich with tools and materials that most teachers only dream to have.

Time has proven that the vision of Steve and Karen was, and remains brilliant! STEM education is at the forefront of 21st century pedagogy, and yet we were cool before STEM was cool!

A STEM Makerspace 20 Years Later

In 2014 Kris Swanson, also an original hire at Poinciana Math Science & Technology Magnet School, and myself opened our own STEM space - Young Makers Lab. With a great deal of credit owed to Steve, Karen, and our fellow staff at Poinciana, Kris and I built what has become South Florida's premier STEM makerspace for kids.  

We offer workshops in 3D printing, computer programming, robotics, Minecraft and much more. YML also holds in-school workshops at a number of local elementary schools.  If we are not in your school yet, let's talk about how to change that. 

Email, text or call anytime. 561.236.0938.

Note: There are so many stories related to the building of this amazing school and staff, that we could (and probably should) fill a book.

Steve, Karen and nearly all of us eventually moved on to other schools and other challenges. Funny thing is, Karen and I ended up together again at Don Estridge High Tech Middle School - but that's a story for another post on another day. 

Tags: stem, stem education, poinciana elementary school

Young Makers Lab

A Makerspace for Kids

YML offers a wide range of STEM education opportunties for kids beginning at age 5. 

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Email, text or call anytime - 561-236-0938.

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