COLUMBIA — When Troy Hogg arrived at Benton Elementary School five years ago, he saw a school without a vision.
During his first three years as principal, Hogg brought in outside consultants to help unify the staff.
"None of the professional development held us together," Hogg said. "It couldn’t get us all on the same bus. When we became a STEM school, it provided a common focus and direction and helped us all get on the same bus."
STEM refers to science-, technology-, engineering- and mathematics-centered learning. Benton administrators, teachers and students are about two months into their second year as a STEM school.
At this point, it is too early to measure the success of the program on a quantitative level, said Heather Lang, STEM specialist at the school in north-central Columbia. A partnership planned with Troy Sadler, director of the MU Science Education Center, will allow Benton to track student and teacher progress around STEM-related goals.
"It takes many years before you see a large change," Lang said. "However, the current impact of STEM in the classroom can be seen through the observation of the teachers."
The consensus among the people interviewed for this story is that the change in orientation, with its emphasis on problem-solving, has increased the students' confidence and curiosity inside and outside the classroom.
Cathy Cox, Benton's home/school communicator, said the skills students are learning thanks to STEM will open up new opportunities as they grow.
"I watch these kids, who just two years ago didn't know what an iPad was. They can manipulate it, they can create presentations," Cox said. "Everything we're teaching them now applies to real life."
Benton’s transition to a STEM school began in 2011. At that time, the federal No Child Left Behind Act required all states to set goals around standardized test scores in communication arts and mathematics.
In Missouri, the test around which these goals are set is called the Missouri Assessment Program. All Missouri public school students in grades three through eight take the test.
In June, Missouri became one of 24 states that is no longer required to abide by this and other No Child Left Behind requirements. However, in March 2011, Benton students’ test scores hadn’t met the goals for three years in a row. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education placed the school under what it calls "School Improvement Level 3."
The department requires these schools to take "corrective action." It gives school district administrators seven options, including the options to "replace school staff relevant to failure," "appoint an outside expert to advise the school in its progress" or "institute and implement a new research-based and professionally developed curriculum."
In a March 2011 Missourian article, Hogg said the department's requirement wasn’t the only reason for the transition. "We’re doing it because we think it’s good for the kids, and we want to help them become more successful," he said.
Lang said Benton’s new focus on hands-on learning makes school more meaningful for students. '"They have to know, ‘How does this apply to me?'" she said.
Jen Siemek, a kindergarten teacher at Benton, sees a difference in the way her students approach their learning under STEM. Inquiry-based instruction, in which teachers encourage their students to ask questions about their environment, has made students more curious and independent, Siemek said.
"They are actually independently seeking out things they want to know and asking questions," Siemek said.
One afternoon, a student asked Siemek why the sun was in his eyes at that moment, when it hadn’t been in his eyes that morning. That kind of thinking, she said, is a credit to the STEM model.
Benton pairs the problem-solving component of its curriculum with the inquiry-based instruction. Solving problems in the classroom is explored through its Engineering is Elementary program. Created by the Museum of Science in Boston, the program incorporates engineering units and lessons into classroom learning.
Engineering is Elementary includes 20 engineering units. First- through fifth-grade teachers teach two of these units over the course of a year. Each unit has a storybook in which a character faces a problem.
"Students are taught to recognize the problem, and then they need to figure out how to design or build whatever it is that will solve the problem," Lang said.
Brian Hudson’s fourth-grade class will have an engineering lesson this semester in which students will design and construct an effective alarm system meant to prevent a group of animals from escaping.
Benton is the only school in Columbia that uses this curriculum, but other schools can borrow the kits to use in their own classrooms, Lang said.
When Benton’s faculty and staff first floated the idea of becoming a STEM school to the Columbia School Board in 2011, there was a debate about whether it was a step in the right direction for the school.
According to a Missourian article, then-board member Michelle Pruitt voiced her concern in a Feb. 24, 2011, work session that a focus on math and science might shift emphasis away from communication arts.
"Many students can’t read," Pruitt said, "so should science be the only thing that’s focused on?"
Lang said STEM is about using math and science to better understand other subjects.
"By changing the mentality of the teachers to see math and science can apply to everything, teachers will be able to see those real-world applications and those teachable moments for their students," Lang said.
Katie Mayabb, an art teacher at Benton, said her subject is the perfect laboratory for STEM exploration.
"Art lends itself really well to integrating with science and technology," Mayabb said. "When students are actually applying the things they are learning to make a physical product, that knowledge stays in their heads."
Mayabb created her own STEM-specific art curriculum from scratch. She chose a different theme for each grade level, then tailored her art projects to teach those themes.
This year, Mayabb's kindergarten and first-grade students are creating projects related to the environment. They recently constructed different types of clouds out of cotton balls after an observation and discussion.
Fourth- and fifth-graders in Mayabb's art classroom are learning about animals. In a recent project, students picked three animals and combined all of their characteristics into one animal. Students mixed and matched animals' diets, appearances and habitats, then made an illustration of their new animal.
Next, Mayabb said, they'll build habitats out of cardboard boxes and talk about how animals adapt to their environments.
She teaches from a cart, going from classroom to classroom. Last year, Mayabb taught in one of the school's trailers. This year, thanks to an uptick in enrollment, the school added another fourth-grade teacher who teaches in Mayabb's former classroom.
Under the STEM model, third-grade teacher John Gerhart sees himself as more of a guide than an instructor. Gerhart said he believes the more self-reliant students are, the more likely it is that whatever they're learning will stick with them.
Self-reliance is particularly important as students learn how to use technology, he said. He rarely gives students explicit instructions the first time they use a new computer program or application.
Rather, Gerhart teaches one student, whom he calls the "computer tech," how to use the program. That student is responsible for teaching classmates and helping them work through problems.
"That way, they're reliant on each other, not on me," he said. It's a lesson he said extends beyond learning about computers.
"People think this STEM thing is all about technology — it's not," Gerhart said. "It's about taking risks in academics."
When the dismissal bell rings, Joel Harris and Cathy Cox work to extend that self-reliance beyond the classroom.
This year, almost 90 percent of Benton's 274 students come from low-income homes, according to state data.. Harris, Benton's counselor, said working with a high-poverty population means she spends a lot of her time responding to crises in students' lives with individual and group counseling sessions.
That could change, Harris said, as more of her students engage in project-based learning outside of class. Harris and Cox plan projects for their student groups that emphasize collaboration and compromise.
"With STEM, students are building relationships and developing problem-solving skills that can help them deal with their issues before they reach a crisis point," Harris said.
A prime example, Harris said, was the way she and Cox worked with their third-grade boys group last year to design projects to improve the school environment. The boys worked in teams of two to four to come up with an idea, draw a model of the project then pitch their design to principal Hogg for approval.
Cox said one group designed a "peace place," where students could relax next to a fountain when they become angry or frustrated. Other designs included an outdoor lunch area where students could eat as a reward and a greenhouse.
Khaleel Dampier, a 9-year-old in fourth grade, said his group had to work together and compromise to come up with a design that met the requirements and pleased everyone.
"We talked things through," Khaleel said. "I wanted a teeter-totter, but somebody else in my group wanted a drum. We had to compromise and take turns."
The ability to work through disagreements was an issue in his group, too, said Logan Morris, who is 10 years old and also in fourth grade.
"Two people wanted to do one thing, and two other people wanted to do something different," Logan said. "We learned that it's OK to have criticism, as long as you do it in a way that's respectful."
"We talked about peer pressure, too," Cox said.
"Oh, yeah," said Malakai Nickerson, who is 9 years old and in fourth grade.
"There was one kid who everyone wanted to be partners with," Malakai said. "He got upset and told us all how he was afraid of making other people mad. I wouldn't be mad at him, but I understand why he felt that pressure."
Harris had called Khaleel, Logan and Malakai in from the playground to discuss the project for this story. While the rest of the fourth-grade class was out at recess, they sat politely, watching and listening to each other speak, taking turns talking about their projects and what they had learned.
When Khaleel was asked if he thought the project had given him good practice for whatever job he wanted to have when he grew up, he shook his head.
"No, I'm going to be a police officer," he said. Cox smiled and thanked the boys for their time.
Khaleel returned the smile and stood up quickly.
"I might go see if I can get one kick in kickball," he said.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.