A different brand of STEM brings new life, new hope to an urban high school

We’re really proud of the work our colleague Larry Myatt has done at Manchester New Hampshire’s West High School. Despite a proud history in the Queen City, the school has struggled with declining achievement and one of the state’s highest drop-out rates. It has all the challenges that face many kindred urban schools and communities. Yet, of, late some truly bright spots have emerged. The school’s fledgling STEAM (STEM+) initiative was recently lauded in a University of New Hampshire evaluation link and West was recently awarded a Barr Foundation grant for initial redesign efforts. Link here. 

In an  era of flat achievement and declining student engagement, Larry’s work with West High School’s STEAM initiative has shown what is possible --with committed teachers, leadership,  resources,  and importantly, different thinking about the systems, culture and practices. We wanted to talk with him about it.

--Wayne Ogden and Katrina Kennett



WO- Larry, you knew West High School from an I3 grant effort several years ago. What’s happening now that people are shining a light on new, positive developments?

LM- There are some good achievement results and qualitative hints of growing confidence in an ability to change and grow. The secret sauce would begin with leadership at the building and teacher level, accompanied by both a team and leadership culture of willingness to let go of old practices and beliefs. Add to that an energetic fund-raiser and convener –Bob Baines of STEAM-AheadNH, the city’s former Mayor- and at the center, some great young people –the students- who are clearly responding to a more appealing and authentic kind of learning.

KK- How did it get started for you three years ago?

LM- Chris Motika had recently been named the new principal of West at the time STEAM-Ahead was looking for a home. He knew my work from the I3 grant and I knew him to be a thoughtful guy. Based on my prior experiences at the school, I wasn’t sure that promising work could take root in the building but I agreed to an initial session. 

KK- What convinced you to sign on?

LM- For one, I learned that at the outset Chris Motika had been adamant that the program be open to any and all 9th graders, not limited by grades or recommendations as so many STEM programs are. That caught my eye and was a sign of the right kind of against-the-grain leadership. Bob Baines, on the STEAM end of things, got it as well. So I agreed to a first 2-day session and I encountered an interesting mix of younger and mid-career teachers who were energetic, open-minded and anxious to be part of a highly-collaborative team. They were smart and interesting adults, the kind that kids respond to. Voila.

WO- What was the essence of your initial work?

LM- Exploring the cognitive dissonance on the team – how dissatisfied they were, are, with “traditional teaching” as defined by what’s it’s become over the last 15 years.  In conversation we shared a number of things we had all seen that didn’t work but kept reappearing on the menu for them to implement. We looked at exemplars of traditional practices versus more engaging inquiry learning. And I also asked a lot of questions about what they were looking for –as individuals- in a new professional experience that they could largely define. What was their skin in the game, as they say.

Key to those first two days was also to get a sense of how much support and latitude (i.e. trust) Chris could provide for their efforts - which turned out to be a good deal. Those “pioneer teachers” brought will and commitment, and a stout talent level, to make good on that trust. We began pretty quickly to agree to let go of things –as a team-  that we knew got poor results and to replace them with sound practices emerging from a different orientation. And of course pushing hard on high levels of teamwork and collaboration to support their new work was key –and the team welcomed it .

WO- This is where our leadership lodestar Bill Bryan would chime in that a high degree of adult learning and teamwork usually correlates to high performance. That the psychological contract is strong.

LM- Yep.  And this is a case of him being right again. Leadership at all levels was a key to the launch and in the first year, and when, in year three Chris left for a new position. Fortunately, new principal Rick Dichard is not only equally committed but sees STEAM as a harbinger of what the entire school might look like in a re-imagined form.                                              

WO- You’re not necessarily the “STEM” type, am I right?

LM- You sure are. I had to do some homework. But I knew from my teaching principal days that one key element would be making the shift from a culture of teaching to a culture of learning. People haven’t thought a great deal about why that’s a critical re-orientation. We tend to give only second thoughts to what students will DO, but we’re almost maniacal about the granular behaviors of teachers, as evidenced by our evaluation rubrics and procedures. I’ve worked hard, along with both of you, to redefine and support the spread of more engaging practices, activities that require a different mindset and some different skills from our current ideas of what it is to be a good front-of-the-classroom teacher.

KK- Any other thing you had to dig in to as far as STEM goes?

LM- For sure. I looked at great STEM projects that provoke and inspire lots of different explorations,  solutions, research, designs, models, etc. -not the pursuit of one pre-determined outcome, but generative, suggestive frameworks that present students with “mysteries”, to use Roger Martin’s terminology – questions and ideas that appeal, that make you curious to know more, explore more.

The other thing I researched was how STEM efforts were faring regionally and nationally. There’s been over a decade of solid investment in STEM, but it turns out that results are not so good – nationally or regionally. Last year’s New Hampshire Charitable Fund report on STEM efforts in the state was consonant with outcomes in many other states – they found that students are turned off by the way they experience math and science, far too many of them by the end of middle school. The Wall Street Journal reported on the flat numbers of those entering STEM careers at every level. I saw the problem as starting earlier than that, and not being so much about the kids but what the school -and math and science-- have become. Tightening up what we already do in STEM is not an answer.

See Technical Challenge graphic here.

KK- You’ve identified other studies that talk about why kids are less motivated as they enter high school, right?

LM- Yes. And so much of it is about sitting and listening. When I was working in Rhode Island there was a local study of student experience in urban high schools, and those two words –“sitting” and “listening” came up all the time. 90 % of students said they found their classes uninteresting and unengaging. Words that hardly every appeared were “doing” or “making”.

It’s important to note that the class of 2016 was our first all-NCLB/standards-and-testing cohort. And guess what? Kids are saying they don’t enjoy school as much. Link  My mission along with the West STEAM team began, and remains, to put the thrill back into learning. And we’re just getting into the groove. The teachers have been open-minded, willing to try new things and highly collaborative, really refreshing and energizing to work with, and Rick Dichard as well.

WO- You’ve also drawn a fairly major conclusion about STEM efforts, correct?

LM- Yes, and I think it helps to explain why STEM interest is flat – it’s that STEM  can’t thrive in a traditional, comprehensive high school environment.  The experience is too fragmented, the learning activities too flat, and the architecture and programming too out of sync with what we know about learning and motivation. There are other, far more promising things we could be doing with STEM programming. I actually think that STEM -with an added “a” for arts and technology-  could be the Trojan Horse for the school redesign we’ve been saying we’ve wanted for almost 50 years but, as Clayton Christensen said, we haven’t done much about.

WO- So, you’ve agreed to a “part two” of this interview. and we’ll talk about that more specifically next time. As well as some things that the program is still striving for, right?

LM- Right you are and thanks for having me!



Dr. Larry Myatt, ERC Co-Founder

Stay tuned for our next e-newsletter-: Part Two - STEM as an engine for school redesign