“We don’t do STEM on the side; we are STEM. Everything we do involves career-based learning.”
Brian Patrick, principal of Willoughby-Eastlake School of Innovation (SOI), in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, described the inspiration for the school. “STEM matched perfectly with the district’s mission to equip students with the technical and soft skills they need to be successful. We want children working at a high level from a very young age, using technology, learning how to build things and solve problems, collaborate with others, then relate their findings with ease, regardless of the medium: computers, orally, or in written form, even a combination of all three.”
Four years in, and staffed for grades 3-8, the school is thriving. Capped at 75 students per grade, each one has a waiting list of 100 or more students hoping to get in through a combination of invitation and lottery. Ninth grade will be added in 2019, and SOI will be complete through grade 12 in 2024. Currently, girls represent 45 percent of enrollment.
As a public school, SOI complies with state of Ohio testing requirements in all subjects, and pursues additional equipment and supplies on its own. “It’s a very different focus than the traditional schools in our district,” Patrick said. “And it’s starting to rub off. In addition to creating STEM leaders, we created SOI to test out some things — and if they worked, we would platform them out to other schools in the district. That’s beginning to happen. Teams of educators, some from as far away as Israel, have come to observe the school’s philosophy and see it in action.”
Traditional project-based learning, for example, has known solutions, with teachers guiding students to those solutions. Problem-based learning is more open-ended, because students devise their own solutions, and each one is creative and different. “If you show third-graders a predetermined solution, you’ll get 75 solutions that look exactly like that,” Patrick explained. “If you ask them to solve a problem and don’t give them the answer, you get 75 different ideas.”
“These children don’t know yet what they can’t do,” he continued. “They think outside the box, and we don’t shut down that creativity before it starts. We promote heavily that it doesn’t matter if a solution seems impossible, because a good idea might come out of it. So go with your gut, have fun, and solve the problem in front of you.”
“Part of our mission is to increase the authenticity of learning. We want authentic problems, so we invite career professionals to be a part of what our teachers do. Here, the kids get to run their solutions by people who actually do the work.”
Stewards of the land
Each year, SOI’s entire seventh grade earns EPA certification in water-quality testing at the nearby Chagrin River and presents their results at the program’s end to partners, parents, and peers. “Having professionals from the community partnering and working with these kids has been a huge boon for us,” Patrick said. “We follow the state protocols for qualitative habitat evaluation index water testing, or QHEI. The Ohio EPA uses the data our certified students gather.
“In the process, students learn the commitment it takes to do fieldwork correctly. Even if they’d rather be a lab supervisor, they still need to know how fieldwork is done. Later, if they’re in a position to order tests, their demands will be realistic — it makes the whole system work more smoothly.”
Students are also engaged in another water-themed ecology project — reclaiming Euclid Creek, which winds through the back of SOI’s wooded property. It’s on a flood plain, but because of debris and development, is now tightly channeled. Each spring, water rushes straight downstream and floods where it shouldn’t.
SOI received a $250,000 grant from the EPA to reclaim its part of the watershed. “Everyone here knows I don’t say ‘no’ a lot,” Patrick said. “Unless it’s going to burn down the building or spend the whole year’s budget, I say go ahead, hoping that even if something doesn’t work, we’re going to learn from it.”
With the help of a consultant, a grant to study the creek and reclaim it emerged. A local company, Biohabitats, performed the study and laid out a plan for making the creek more habitable. The students are now tasked with slowing down sections of the creek in order to restore habitat.
“They’re completely changing the shape and contours of the creek, adding riffles and additional habitats, resetting where dead trees have fallen, finding ways to make it habitable again,” Patrick said. “Our students are becoming stewards of the land.”
After removing invasive plant species, students will set 2,700 plantings of native species to restore the creek’s habitat. They will also create protective grates to place around bushes being decimated by deer. “Each grade level will design their own system,” Patrick said. “Then nature will let us know if their designs work.”
Patrick hopes the multiyear project will eventually be opened to the whole school district as an outdoor learning lab. SOI students will also learn speaking and listening skills by guiding tours.
SOI is also working with local mayors to gather challenges for students to solve in the surrounding communities. “We’ll then partner with a school in that community to solve a problem, or make a difference,” Patrick said. “We’re always looking for service projects that help others.”
Design challenges and pumpkin-flinging trébuchets
SOI’s design challenges are shorter modules, aimed at building collaborative and inquiry-based skills, a “warmup” for the larger, interdisciplinary problem-based learning projects. The school’s fabrication lab has 3D printing capability, turning student designs into prototypes.
“Our seventh- and eighth-graders are working with another school’s nursing program to create vein finders — cheaper versions of a very expensive existing product,” Patrick said. “They’re developing devices to help nurses find veins easily when they’re doing a blood draw.”
Design challenges can also be competitive. Recently, SOI’s seventh grade designed trébuchets, medieval-era compound machines used to throw objects in battle. Where a catapult has an arm holding a basket that throws objects, a trébuchet uses a slinged hammock and “flings” them.
Students used mechanical engineering, physics, and math skills to design their creations. “We had 15 groups who made them from scratch,” Patrick said. “Volunteers, parents, and professionals from all over Lake County came in daily to help answer the kids’ questions. We had a throw-off to see which five could go the farthest, and those five competed at the Willoughby Halloween Pumpkin Chunkin contest. It was a blast. The first time, one of our teams threw a pumpkin over 100 feet. And it all stemmed from somebody saying, ‘Hey, let’s try this!’
“Every student gets hands-on experience designing, working with tools, on-site testing. There’s lots of failure, lots of laughing, lots of success,” Patrick said. “We have a lot of fun here.”