The women of Wilburton Elementary are reinventing STEM for K-5

Wilburton Elementary is a state-of-the-art school being built from the ground up, following the guidance of the Microsoft Education Transformation Framework, in a collaborative effort between the Bellevue School District (BSD) and Microsoft. Follow Wilburton’s progress as it happens, from breaking ground, to hiring, to becoming a true 21st century learning community when it opens its doors in September 2018.

This month, as we celebrate the power of STEM to revolutionize learning – especially for girls – I’m excited to share insights from a group of women who are showing us how STEM can bridge the growing skills gap from the moment students start kindergarten.

About five years ago, when STEM started shifting from just an acronym to a real-world movement, some of the most interesting STEM curriculum development was happening right in Microsoft’s own backyard. The Bellevue School District (BSD) began to look at ways they could transform their elementary curriculum by bringing STEM into three elementary schools. And the work they started continues to pay dividends.

While the district gets ready to build Wilburton Elementary, its first brand-new school in years, we caught up with Principal Beth Hamilton to learn more about how she’s creating a STEM-focused school and working to scale the model throughout the district. Two other powerhouse women of STEM – Cheri Bortleson, BSD’s K-5 STEM Curriculum Developer, and Liz Ritz, the district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction – were there to share their perspectives, too.


A STEM-for-all mindset


Bortleson, who was the principal of one of those original BSD elementary schools that brought in STEM, tells us, “We had a lot of professional development to start building a STEM mindset – not just why it’s important, but how do we integrate and teach it to our students at the K-5 level. And we were among the first schools to put STEM into science units, mainly around engineering.”

Since then, all 17 BSD elementary schools have had that STEM professional development, with STEM becoming part of the district’s science curriculum. “The STEM mindset isn’t just about a school, it’s about our district context and equity,” says Bortleson. “Our belief is that this is not a magnet model – it’s not for ‘some’ kids, it’s for every student in every school, in every district. We were intent from the onset that every school would be doing this.”

In BSD, the K-5 STEM initiative is about incorporating engineering at every grade level. There are at least two challenges embedded within the science curriculum, with plans for some teachers to do even more with tools like MakeCode next year. The district has also incorporated Next Generation Science Standards at every grade level. And to ensure equity and access, after-school robotics don’t cost families anything.

Of course, STEM for all means boys and girls. Stats vary by country and by discipline but, generally, women make up only 15-25 percent of the current STEM workforce. The gap is broadening – while there’s no evidence that girls are less capable in these fields, stereotyping often makes them feel less capable. So what are Hamilton and her district doing to ensure that young girls are engaged early on and motivated to continue the STEM path, all the way through to their careers?

“At the elementary level, it’s important we give everyone the opportunity to see themselves using computer science, because it’s part of everything we do,” Hamilton says. “And if we don’t expose girls to computer science and STEM, they won’t necessarily know it’s there when they get to middle and high school. We can link every job back to this way of thinking and solving problems, connecting girls to something concrete that they can be passionate about.

“Within our district, we target specific groups, to make sure they’re getting those experiences,” Hamilton adds. “We do things like lunchtime 3-D printing clubs, just for girls. We’ve also partnered with technology groups to bring professionals into our classrooms.”


Setting an example


For Hamilton, successfully building a STEM mindset has a lot to do with integrated professional development.

“Problem solving and being able to collaborate and work together are critical. Computer sciences provide instruction on how to do all of those things,” Hamilton says.

As a built-from-scratch school, Wilburton is wrapping curriculum around STEM and computer science with a focus on how kids do their best learning. STEM and computer science will act as an umbrella. “We will have the same resources as other BSD elementary schools,” Hamilton explains, “but how we use them to engage kids in learning will look different.”

One resource that will be different at Wilburton is a dedicated maker-space, currently being planned by Hamilton and her team. They’re still in the early stages, but they know they have an opportunity to create a space that will benefit not only Wilburton students, but other schools that can emulate their approach.

“Whether it’s personnel, instruction, or resources, the intent from the get-go is whatever we do at Wilburton – if it’s good for kids, we’ll roll it out to all of the other schools as well,” Hamilton explains. “Wilburton is the incubator and can be a model for what STEM learning could look like.”

At Microsoft, our commitment to STEM comes from an understanding that computer science and STEM are where the jobs of the future lie.

“Computational thinking is such a fundamental skill, regardless of the student’s career path,” says Eve Psalti, Microsoft’s director of education programs. “For that reason, we continue to focus on creating opportunities – especially for young girls – to get involved in STEM areas.”

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