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STEM focus gives school new tools

Quatama Elementary will get help with science, math skills


by: PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Pamplin media group photo: JAIME VALDEZ Quatama Elementary School Principal Janis Hill stands at the school's plot at a community garden adjacent to the Hillsboro school. The school will use the plot as part of its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program this school year.In the five years that Quatama Elementary School has been around, students have used the nearby community garden plot to grow vegetables, but not in any focused, integrated way.

All that is about to change this year as the diverse school of 560 students — just a mile away from the Intel campus — becomes one of four Hillsboro public schools designated as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) focus school.

That means the garden will be home base for hands-on learning about the construction of bird houses, the science of worm composting, math and language arts lessons as they relate to bird and bug and plant habitats as they apply to the different grade levels.

“We’re trying to reach all different kinds of learners, trying to engage students in stuff that matters so that they will be excited about learning, reading and math,” says Principal Janis Hill, in her fifth year at Quatama. “The goal is inside or outside the classroom, the work is meaningful and engages kids in real problem solving.”

Quatama is one of four elementary schools in Hillsboro to get the STEM designation this fall, as part of a larger regional called the Portland-Metro STEM Partnership.

“Everybody likes this idea,” says Chris Steiner, the Hillsboro teacher who is leading the district’s STEM-related work. “Hillsboro is a technological community, and the community wants it.”

Steiner says the Hillsboro School Board had surveyed its families about what kinds of programs they wanted to see their schools offer.

In other districts, arts-based programs and International Bacculareate are popular.

Here, the majority saw STEM as the best way to prepare their children for college and careers, a pipeline to the high-tech job community and a context to learning any subject they should decide to pursue.

So the district started working on designated two schools as STEM-focused, when the Intel STEM Center opened in April with a $40,000 grant for STEM studies in Hillsboro schools.

District leaders quickly designated two more STEM focus schools, and hope to involve as many local businesses and parents in the effort.

“We don’t need a lot of better equipment but we do need better instruction,” Steiner says. “Some topics in science and math require a most effective teaching strategy.”

Teachers at the focus schools will get help with lesson-planning as well as fine-tuning their strategies from the experts at the Intel STEM Center, through the experts at Portland State University and the two dozen other partners including Oregon Health and Science University, SolarWorld, OMSI and the Oregon Zoo.

PSU held trainings for teachers district-wide over the summer; other opportunities will be offered throughout the year.

At each STEM school, a half-time teacher is dedicated as the STEM teacher on special assignment, to help integrate the curriculum, organize trainings and develop tools to measure progress.

It’ll take a bit of fine-tuning; in a language arts classroom, Steiner imagines, students might read a book about a kid who is interested in windmills.

“We can start generating some curiosity,” he says. “We can get them to start learning about wind, then designing windmills. Science and technology is just a context.”

An ‘equity issue’

Besides Quatama, Hillsboro’s three other new STEM Focus schools are Farmington View, Groner, and Tobias elementary. The Beaverton School District has two schools joining in; Forest Grove and Parkrose each have one; and Portland Public Schools has two: Boise Eliot K-8 and the Jefferson Middle College of Advanced Studies.

At Quatama, the students aren’t starting from scratch. The school was designed with an arts-focused curriculum, so teachers already instruct with that creative lens in mind. The arts will still remain. In fact, it’ll be one more element of their STEM curriculum: they’re adopting the acronym STEAM.

At a school like Quatama — with many low-income students but not enough to receive extra federal resources as a Title 1 school — Principal Hill says she sees STEM as a way to close the all-consuming achievement gap.

“I see it as an equity issue, to bring those opportunities to all kids,” she says, noting that Quatama students spoke a total of 16 different languages last year.

Hill says she pursued the STEM opportunity because the school is already recognized as a “green school” for its recycling efforts, and has a strong core of parents who are eager to get involved.

“It’s really nice to be planning towards something,” Hill says. “When you’re able to focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t do because we keep getting things taken away — it’s a nice thing.”