How one school district used a holistic approach to produce a dozen award-winning science labs

As principals move from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds era, the traditional school improvement model that narrowly targeted student achievement is no longer standard operating procedure. In our district, we have broadened our view of school improvement, and the results have been dramatic—we’ve redesigned middle school science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning spaces and curricula.

We accomplished this by using a holistic school improvement planning process that utilized the power and collective capacity of student, staff, parent, and community voice. Working under an intensive, two-year Plan-Do-Study-Act process, principal leadership transformed student learning and school facilities for decades to come. For example, we now have 12 award-winning science labs available to all students in grades 6 through 8. 

Potent Process

In 2013, Deerfield Public Schools District 109 embarked on a new format for school improvement planning. Rather than form a team of staff to focus narrowly on measures of student achievement—as had been the model in Illinois and across the nation for many years—we took steps to gather a large group of constituent stakeholders. One hundred and forty staff, parents, students, and community members came together to research areas for improvement. The Superintendent’s Task Force for Middle Level Education reviewed middle school education in six broad areas: fine arts, STEM, exploratories, world languages, gifted programming, and social emotional learning.

Each subcommittee of the task force was chaired by a middle school building administrator, and subcommittee membership comprised balanced representation among constituent group members. Subcommittees were encouraged to think and dream big. The task for each group was not to focus on incremental improvement, but rather to develop audacious goals for improved student learning experiences that reflected their vision for contemporary education. One student put it best when she stated it was her opportunity to, “share my ideas in order to make things work.”

One specific goal that emerged was the redevelopment of the middle school STEM experience. Principal facilitators educated the 27-member STEM task force subcommittee on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards. The group studied and engaged in dialogue about current realities and future projections. The national and international need for improved science education was identified, and opportunities in STEM employment fields were discussed. With the United States underperforming in STEM education, and the unfilled STEM job gap growing, the committee felt it was incumbent on the school district to act.

The subcommittee developed a shared vision statement with the help of principal leadership. The shared vision was for “District 109 to lead the state in developing innovative and inspired thinkers and problem solvers.” To achieve that vision, the group set a goal to rewrite the science curriculum and to design new science lab spaces for all middle school students.

Dramatic Design

With the goal of developing cutting-edge middle school science facilities and curriculum, a team of science teachers and principals were selected to work with the district’s architects. The design phase was unique for two reasons: First, the curriculum that would be delivered in the space was still in development; and, second, the end users were highly involved in articulating the needs of the labs to the architects.

This design approach was a significant departure for our organization; past construction had focused on architect-directed design to meet established curricular programming. Now, the voice and leadership of the principals was central during all phases of design. The Board of Education and superintendent recognized the need to empower school-based leadership to effect lasting, second-order change.

Because the NGSS-aligned curriculum was not yet complete, the design team emphasized the need for flexibility and design agility in the final layout. What seemed an impediment to effective design emerged as a strength. The completed learning spaces would need to remain pliable: They had to serve the unknown now, and ultimately in the future. Furniture could not be static, the teacher’s mobility could not be constrained to a single demonstration station, the location of wet lab and classroom space could not be restrictive. The space needed to be versatile enough to allow for innovation now and in the future.

Design highlights of the completed space include:

  • Mobile student seating and lab stations
  • Movable walls
  • Three points of projection throughout the room for students to see teacher- or student-​presented material
  • Networked monitors at each lab station for use of science-specific software, and to allow students to see teacher lab demonstrations from a demonstration camera
  • Green-energy technology (wind turbines, solar, rain collection) with real-time consumption and energy generation available to students via a web-based dashboard
  • Real-time weather monitoring
  • Birdhouses with live camera feeds into the classroom

Design continued into construction, and construction of the 12 labs was split into two phases. Phase one took part in the oldest and smallest of the four labs during the summer of 2014, and the remaining eight labs were completed in 2015. This provided an opportunity for the phase two labs to be further improved by soliciting feedback from students and staff that experienced learning in the completed phase one labs.

Rewarding Results

Every square centimeter of space in the science labs and classrooms is available for learning, as defined by our current needs, but the spaces are also available for the learning of tomorrow. The labs won the Learning by Design award for “Outstanding Project” in spring 2016, as well as an “Award of Merit” for the Exhibition of Educational Environments Awards at the Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials in 2015. In addition, the leadership team for the task force earned a 2014 “Distinguished Service Award of Excellence” from the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association. Students, staff, parents, and visiting dignitaries-including the governor of Illinois and Illinois state superintendent of education-have raved about the capabilities of the new labs. One parent working in a STEM field went so far as to say the labs rivaled the capabilities of his work environment.

While we have enjoyed the positive feedback, the challenge we now face is how to measure the return on investment. Our board of education authorized nearly $10 million in support of these projects, and like leaders in other districts, we’re challenged to substantiate the benefit such work yields for the students in our care. We believe the answer to this challenge is to reinvest in the process—by engaging stakeholders in the meaningful study of student outcomes associated with the labs and redesigned instruction and examining again the research on effective STEM instruction. 

Brian Bullis, EdD, is the principal at Charles J. Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, IL.
John Filippi, EdD, is the principal at Alan B. Shepard Middle School in Deerfield.
Michael Lubelfeld, EdD, is the superintendent of schools for Deerfield Public Schools District 109. 

Sidebar: Make It Work

Implement a holistic, redesigned STEM program at your school:

  • Inspire. Motivate teachers, students, and community members to dream big. Lead with data, energy, emotion, and hope. Encourage teams to produce tangible results through dream/do leadership.
  • Engage. Facilitate stakeholder group planning, review, and implementation recommendations.
  • Reinvest. Lead analysis of the change process. Encourage stakeholders to benchmark results of change against growth targets, and set goals for continued growth.