How does a high school become a STEM school? Becoming a STEM school is not about implementing a new engineering class or cutting-edge technology tools—it’s a process of learning and understanding what effective instruction looks like in any classroom. STEM teaching philosophies and practices can be incorporated into any instructional area. As the first high school in the state of Colorado to earn the National Certificate for STEM Excellence–Campus Certificate, Central High School in Grand Junction, CO, has adopted a few strategies and beliefs in our journey to becoming a STEM school. 

The Framework for STEM

While we had been mulling over the idea of becoming a STEM school for years, we didn’t have a clear idea of what a STEM school looked like or how to make it happen. In 2016, our STEM coordinator enrolled in a STEM teacher certification program with the National Institute for STEM Education (NISE). He thought the program provided a solid conceptual framework that would allow us to implement STEM best practices schoolwide. 

In 2017, we registered for the NISE campus certification program, and by 2018 we became the first high school in Colorado to earn the certificate. To date, over one-third of our teachers have completed the National Certificate for STEM Teaching (NCST) through NISE.

So Much More Than Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

One of our biggest takeaways from the STEM certification process was the idea that STEM is about implementing rigorous instructional strategies that can be applied to any content area and at any grade level. Teachers who have enrolled in the certification program are guided through the development of a digital portfolio that demonstrates their understanding of 15 STEM Teacher Actions across three domains: creating an environment for learning, building scientific understanding, and engaging students in science and engineering practices. To earn the campus certificate, we also developed a digital portfolio demonstrating the application of the 15 teacher actions. 

Any teacher—physical education, theater, Spanish, or AP calculus—can implement the 15 STEM Teacher Actions in their classes. From “creating a positive classroom culture” to “implementing inquiry” to “developing engineering solutions,” these actions can improve student learning and engagement—and they can be easily observed and improved with coaching.

A common misconception in many high schools is that students are either STEM kids or they’re not. However, STEM isn’t only for students who excel at science, technology, engineering, or math—STEM is for all. At Central High School, our staff has collaboratively created five STEM pillars to be emphasized in all classrooms: 

  1. Problem Solving 
  2. Critical Thinking 
  3. Citizenship
  4. Resiliency 
  5. Creation 

Focus on the “Why” to Empower Students

We can no longer teach students the way we were taught. Our teachers explain that most students are not content to do an assignment simply because we tell them to do it. Today’s learners want to know why they’re doing an assignment and why it’s relevant. That’s what STEM is all about. 

Today’s students have access to a wealth of information at their fingertips. They need to know how to question; investigate; problem solve; interpret data and information; present ideas and listen to others; and develop, support, and analyze explanations. These STEM instructional strategies support student mastery of learning in any content area, as well as preparation for college and career. 

Changes in Our School

Since 2017, our school has changed as a result of our commitment to and growth in the implementation of STEM strategies. Being a STEM-certified campus has helped us create a shared vision and identity for our high school. We’ve launched campuswide initiatives to promote each of our STEM pillars and increase what we call “STEMmy” instruction. For example, under our “Critical Thinking” pillar, all teachers now implement the claim, evidence, reasoning (CER) framework. The CER framework is a visible STEM classroom action that helps students build critical thinking skills. Similarly, under the “Problem Solving” pillar, the engineering design process—planning, design, building, testing and evaluation, and feedback—is another STEM classroom action that has become a universal practice campuswide. 

Our STEM focus has also given us a stronger focus on creating student-centered classrooms. Our students even encourage their teachers to better meet their needs as learners. For example, if a teacher lectures three days in a row, the students are going to call them on it. Students have come to expect the time to process and apply new learning, as well as the ability to collaborate with a group of students or “team” as they problem solve or seek to understand. They know that they learn so much more when they engage in STEMmy activities.

The STEM certification process also opened our eyes to the importance of student voice. When we have big initiatives like school construction projects, we now invite students to join committees and be part of the decision-making process. We have even had groups of students present to our school board and at the Colorado Association of School Executives conference about what education should be today. When students describe their vision for education, they often talk about many of the same things we learned during the STEM certification process. 

Since 2017, student attendance has increased. In fact, unexcused absences have decreased by 38%. Student learning has improved, too; student scores on the SAT have increased by 12 points. This data shows us that our STEM focus is working across the board.

We have seen changes in our faculty as well. Our teachers engage in more self-reflection about the effectiveness of their teaching practices and enjoy more camaraderie. Our STEM focus provides a common language and helps increase collaboration between departments and classrooms. They ask each other, “What did you do for this indicator under this STEM Teacher Action?” or say, “Here’s an idea I tried that encouraged intellectual risk-taking in my class.” 

When we moved to remote learning due to COVID-19, our students made that shift more easily than many of their peers because they were already experienced at problem solving, experimenting, and troubleshooting. Our STEM-certified teachers were also better equipped to create meaningful, relevant coursework during remote learning. When we examined instances where student attendance was declining or students weren’t turning in their work, we saw that it was often because they didn’t understand the relevance of the activities; they felt like they were doing busy work.

Do’s and Don’ts for STEM Schools

School leaders have asked us how they can establish their own STEM school. Follow our do’s and don’ts:

  • DON’T try to be like another STEM school. When we talk with principals and assistant principals, the first thing we tell them is, “Don’t try to be like Central High School.” Your culture and people should dictate how STEM will be integrated into your school—and that may change from year to year as your students and staff change. 
  • DO focus on why you want to be a STEM school. When we started, we became concerned with questions such as, “What will a STEM structure look like in our school? What will it look like in our classrooms?” Finally, one of our teachers reminded us that we are implementing STEM because we believe this is what will be best for our students. 
  • DO educate staff, parents, and students. Becoming a STEM school takes work. It cannot be rolled out in a day or a week or a month. Teachers need to understand the pedagogy necessary for an effective STEM classroom. Parents need to understand that instruction will look different and teachers will have different expectations for their students. Students need to understand that they will have more freedom and more responsibility for their own learning.

STEM is for all students, and every student should have the opportunity to experience STEMmy instruction. The STEMmy classroom isn’t passive; it’s active, just like the workplace and the world around us. 

Lanc Sellden is the principal of Central High School in Grand Junction, CO—the first Colorado high school to earn the National Certificate for STEM Excellence–Campus Certificate. Tracy Arledge is the assistant principal, and Phil Johnston is the STEM coordinator at Central High School.