Jeff Davis is Assistant Principal of the Freshman Academy at Stratford STEM Magnet High School in Nashville. We asked Jeff to share his experiences from his first year working in a STEM school.
STEM education continues to evolve in definition, practice, and execution, and that is how it should be. In K12 education, we are preparing some students for careers that don’t currently exist. Many of these careers will be birthed and evolve through advancements in STEM, and to be included on the ground floor of the STEM initiative in Tennessee is an exciting and challenging endeavor. Especially when only a year ago I wasn’t even aware of its existence!
Nearly all of the high schools in MNPS are based on the academy model. In essence, they are schools within schools in which students are allowed to choose their campuses based on interest and career goals. Freshman academy students practice project based learning (PBL) and are tasked each nine weeks with a cross-curricular project based on one of the many pathways our school has to offer. They then choose an academy and pathway their sophomore year based on interest gained through their own research and through their PBL experiences.
As an administrator, I was well trained as an instructional leader. I am able to determine quickly if a teacher is engaging his students and whether this teacher is using researched-based strategies effectively. I have also become adept at analyzing data to determine the direction and focus of classroom teaching. But PBL, academies, themes, pathways, driving questions, and project expos made me feel like I was back to square one in my leadership journey. That is, until I understood the academy structure and met the academy coach and the instructional designers.
The academy coach and instructional designers are like superheroes to me. They are sciences educators at the top of their game. They keep the academies moving forward and ensure the lessons being taught and projects being implemented exhibit a high quality of rigor and 21st Century skill. They guided me patiently through the requirements of PBL and the non-negotiables associated with successful PBL implementation.
Along with the designers and coach, each academy has a lead teacher who, in addition to teaching full time, facilitates the planning of the PBL with the rest of the freshman academy during common planning time. His knowledge of the process and ability to focus his colleagues is especially valuable, and it doesn’t hurt that we work with professionals who are passionate about STEM and PBL.
A further boon was the training I received from MNPS. The Buck Institute for Education delivered several days of training specifically on PBL. The training was thorough, but it would have been just another professional development session if the faculty and staff at Stratford didn’t practice it with fidelity.
With two other Stratford educators, I later attended a three-day externship with the Nashville District Army Corps of Engineers. Educators from across MNPS take part in these exercises along with business partners whose work is connected with the work of each academy. The externship was a well-planned, three-day crash course on the mission, vision, and daily practice of the officers, engineers, biologists, and chemists working with water management in the Nashville District.
In addition to extended briefings, we analyzed water samples at various depths, visited two locks and dams, toured a hydropower plant, and collected samples of macroinvertebrates from a nearby stream. After the externship, our teachers planned an extensive project to explore and document the water quality of a local stream that flows near Stratford High School, a project that will be repeated each year to gauge longitudinal fluctuations in water quality.
I had read about PBL and received training, but it was this externship that made real to me the importance of PBL and the need for STEM education in our region.
One year ago I began this journey unsure of my abilities to lead an academy with confidence. But the supportive structure of Stratford and the opportunities for in-depth training from MNPS have made a world of difference. I still can’t quote PBL chapter and verse, but I know I have support and I’m excited to begin year two.