Since the summer of 2014, the Education Resources Consortium has had the pleasure of supporting the birth and development of STEAM-Ahead NH, located at Manchester High School West in New Hampshire’s Queen City. The idea originated when local business owners Jeremy Hitchcock of Dyn and Nick Soggu of SilverTech, both graduates of Manchester schools, were inspired to support the creation of a program focused on the STEM fields. They were joined by Mayor Ted Gatsas who suggested including the Arts to include the creative thinking aspect often missing in STEM initiatives. The STEAM concept coincided with the arrival of new Manchester West Principal Christopher Motika, who helped to move quickly to fit the pieces together. According to Motika, community partners around Manchester, including higher education players came together, and “bent the rules just enough” to begin the first cohort of STEAM-Ahead.
Motika says that the vision for West is to grow the program not only as a magnet for all students in the district interested in the STEAM fields, but also as a mechanism for transforming practices within the school. STEAM Ahead-NH teachers are proving that inter-disciplinary project-based learning, and “un-leveling” classes not only motivates students (nearly 100% daily attendance in the program compared with 87% school-wide), but can improve learning outcomes. Motika adds, “Our ideas would not have meant much if we didn’t have a solid team of teachers willing to take risks, change their practices, and try new things”. The program which began this year with a ninth grade cohort will expand next year to include new faculty members and a tenth grade. This year’s teaching team consists of Christine Aspinwall, Dan Colburn, Rachel Belmont, Sandra Ratliff, and Robin Henkle. According to Motika, this year’s group of STEAM Ahead teachers has proven to be great collaborators, sharing ideas openly with a constant eye on trying new things.
One of the key reasons ERC opted to support STEAM Ahead is that unlike many "STEM" programs, STEAM-Ahead NH is open to all students, not just those who "test in" or bring prior high grades. When queried how and why that happened, and what have the results been, Motika responds in animated fashion: “When the collaboration began among community partners, higher education representatives and West HS educators, some people saw STEAM Ahead as a selective program. But there was a small and persistent group who insisted that the program represent the whole school and the city in terms of its diversity --economic, English Language learners, students with special needs, and varying academic histories. It was also important that it be “un-leveled” because many ideas about students’ abilities are not based in learning science and limit their opportunities to grow. We wanted to show that good learning is possible in the more natural, heterogeneous settings we find in life and work. Fortunately, many of the grants we applied for required that kind of inclusiveness, and so the program was designed to be open to all interested students.
“Our results have proven that given the right environment, any student can succeed. Our attendance rate alone impresses educators, politicians, and community partners –we’re doing something that is getting kids excited about coming to school. Add a low failure rate, and the fact that students who did not perform well in middle school and were “tracked” into lower level classes have come into STEAM Ahead and now achieve at higher levels, and we have exciting results to bring to the larger faculty and the community. Words cannot express how proud I am of the teacher team and the way they embraced this project of making learning fun, exciting, and engaging for kids.”
Veteran science instructor Christine Aspinwall, herself a graduate of Manchester HS West, was looking for an opportunity to recharge herself and get away from the district’s “leveling” system. Aspinwall says, “Students understood that they had been placed in the ‘low’ levels, which is not helpful or motivating, to say the least, and often the “upper-level” students had an air of superiority that may or may not have been justified, but made for an unhelpful dynamic. I love the heterogeneous grouping, the dynamic is so different. I love the fact that I have seen students that were relatively unsuccessful in middle school, find their voice and grow. With the right learning opportunities, everyone learns and contributes, and everyone feels like part of our community”.
Aspinwall and Principal Motika have been enthusiastic about ERC as a partner due to its commitment to school re-design, not simply working within the boundaries of conventional school ideas and practices. As Aspinwall says, “I love the permission and support in breaking free from traditions that don’t work that well. As a biologist, I have an adapt-or-die outlook, and this fits right in for me.”
As things kicked off last fall, Lucy Weathers, a VISTA volunteer, was a fortunate find for the STEAM Team, working as college and career counselor but also as a development, public relations and community liaison for the program, helping to create real world connections to what the students are learning in STEAM classrooms. Weathers says that in-city partners like Dyn, SilverTech, and Admix have not only contributed financially but also continue to give time, effort, and experience to our students.
Currently operating without an art teacher assigned to the program, the team is help fulfill the “A” (arts) by creating a humanities aspect to all of its engineering projects, and to further the fine arts aspect STEAM has turned to the community for help. They have taken learning voyages to two well-known artistic outlets in Manchester, the Currier Museum of Art and the Palace Theatre. A search is currently under way for Artists-in-Residence -community members, students, and professionals- to get involved in any aspect of the arts; fine arts, dance, theatre, vocal music, etc. to infuse into instructional units. Says Weathers, “We’re excited to have anyone from the community –artists, business people, college students, volunteers- come in and get involved. Please be in touch with us if you have ideas and energy, whatever form that may take. Our commitment is to building and growing without boundaries”.