Wauwatosa School Board gets a STEM update

Published on: 8/1/2013

The Wauwatosa STEM Elementary School, the district's first public charter school, is seeing increased demand among students and their parents, according to a presentation at Monday's School Board meeting.

From 83 students last year, the school, housed in the Wilson Elementary School building, is planning on 117 students in the fall, said Principal Michael Heun.

There were 44 available seats for next year — and 144 applicants. In the years to come, Heun, who is also principal of Wilson, envisions WSTEM pulling nearly even with Wilson in the number of sections that it enrolls.

The 6-year-old school emphasizes science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and uses practical problem-solving as a part of its methodology. It has formed or is developing partnerships with the Milwaukee County Zoo, Marquette University School of Engineering, the Milwaukee County Parks, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Lutheran College, Heun reported.

It has won awards and been recognized by state and national organizations.

A big project

One of the school's emphases this year was a 'project-based learning initiative,' working with the Milwaukee County Parks to begin to build an outdoor classroom.

Kristy Casey, president of the WSTEM Governance Board, said the project had its genesis in a trip to Washington, D.C., a few years ago.

'We saw several schools out there, and they all sort of had a problem that they had their students working on,' she said.

For example, the students at one school 'asked why the water behind their school was orange, and they really worked hard at investigating that. And I think a lot of the times we think we have to bring the kids to the mountain, and I think we came back and kind of re-evaluated and said, you know, maybe we have to bring the mountain to the kids.'

With that mind-set, the Wauwatosa STEM students are asking, 'Will there ever be fish in Honey Creek again?'

Outside organizations are working with the Milwaukee Metropolitan School District in trying to bring salmon back to the river. The school hopes to work with MMSD in an outdoor classroom at the corner of Honey Creek and Portland Avenue, Casey said.

The outdoor classroom would be for all Wauwatosa students.

'It's students creating a learning environment for other students in Wauwatosa,' she said.

Part of the project, for example, would have the goal of restoring the concrete-lined creek to its natural, fish-supporting state.

The entire effort teaches lessons in biology, indigenous and invasive species, history, water quality, and problem solving, among other things. The project involves Marquette University in water quality testing on Honey Creek, and Wisconsin Lutheran College's biology department for electro-shocking of fish in the creek.

'It's just a great way for interconnections and cross-curricular connections to be made,' Casey said.

Taking ownership

Solving their own problems, the students 'feel tremendous ownership,' Casey said.

But the results go further than that, Heun said.

In a parent survey, with 40 of 61 families responding, all of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their children have been successful in the STEM environment. In test scores, including the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Evaluation, and the District Writing Assessment, high percentages of the students scored above national means or were proficient or better.

For School Board member Carmela Rios, the question was how the school's 'best practices' could be shared with other schools.

Casey noted that the school's charter allows it to use different math and science curricula than regular district schools, suggesting that transference might be a challenge.

'I think our outdoor classroom is our first attempt to share this knowledge with the rest of the district,' she said.

Heun said, as principal of both Wilson and WSTEM, 'with looking at trying to address Common Core state standards, I don't run two different staff meetings or professional development. I think that's something that really ties us together.'