Students at Jennie P. Stewart Elementary School in Centerville had a virtual assembly with students from Vae View Elementary in Layton Friday morning.

The two schools celebrated being recognized by the Utah State Board of Education as Platinum STEM Designation schools — the highest designation the board awards for the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math.

The award does not come with funding, but is a way to recognize excellent teaching and can make a school more likely to receive grants.

Stewart is the only Chinese dual immersion school in the state to receive the platinum designation.

“It’s a long application process, and it looks at not just what you typically think about STEM, like technology,” said Amanda Keller, principal at Stewart Elementary School, “but it looks at 21st-century learning like collaboration and creative thinking and critical thinking — and also things like involving input from the community and students taking ownership of their learning.

“So it’s not about the gadgets or the trinkets, it’s more about a pedagogy — a teaching philosophy and style.”

In the 2014 state legislative session, the Legislature created the STEM Designation program and assigned it to the STEM Action Center and Utah State Board of Education to design and administer. The board began awarding schools with the designation in 2015.

To apply, a school scores itself on 37 elements, which range from “connections to the real world and current events” to “student participation in decision-making.”

The school also creates a digital portfolio highlighting its work in project-based learning, community partnerships and support for professional learning.

Then representatives of the STEM Action Center, the state board and parent groups do a walk-through of the school, visiting every grade level.

After evaluating the schools that apply, the STEM Action Center recommends to the state board the schools that should receive STEM designations.

Keller said that she thinks that her school’s strength is professional learning — the school started by focusing on changing teaching practices.

The way they teach lessons, Keller said, has basically been turned upside down.

“Traditionally, we would teach the vocabulary first, and then the teacher would do all the thinking and explain it to you, and you would take notes and memorize it and then regurgitate it into a test,” Keller said.

“Now, a lot of the learning just starts with a question or a problem that needs to be solved, and the students brainstorm it — although the teacher has already thought through all that and knows how to direct them with questioning.”

After students understand the concepts they’re learning, then the teachers attach vocabulary.

Keller says that students seem to learn vocabulary more effectively this way.

The school also has “Discovery Day” for an hour on Fridays, when teachers get to teach whatever they want, often based on student interest — like a challenge to build the tallest tower.

Sixth graders work on capstone projects, which they will showcase at their sixth grade graduation at the end of the year.

Keller said her son, a sixth grader at the school, is working on a habi-dome, or habitat for people to survive on Mars.

The school also integrates the arts into its STEM curriculum.

First graders learning about the life cycle of a plant also learned an interpretive dance with the school’s arts integrationist — a position created through a partnership with the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program.

“When you ask (the first graders) about the life cycle of a plant,” Keller said, “whenever they would give you the answer, they would also do that part of the dance just intrinsically, because they had connected those two things together.”

Keller said that while they welcome additional technology into the school — the school is raising funds for a 3D printer and on the verge of have a computer for every student — the tools are not the center of learning.

When working with robotics, Keller said, their approach is “let’s learn how to code the robotics so we can solve a problem” instead of “let’s follow directions to build this robot and then drive it around.”

These self-driven, often ambitious projects have led the students to realize that failure is inherent in any endeavor.

“The feeling of failing or getting the answer wrong is just not a big deal any more to the majority of our students,” Keller said. “They’re more willing to give something a try that they aren’t familiar with.”

New Bridge School in Ogden School District was awarded a Platinum STEM Designation in 2017. Green Acres Elementary in Weber School District earned a bronze designation in 2015.

Two area charters, DaVinci Academy in Ogden and Quest Academy in West Haven, have earned gold and silver designations, respectively.

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