A new direction: Students prepare to start at STEM school in Aurora

AURORA — Most summers, 9-year-old Kaiya Hollister is sad to see her vacation come to an end. But this year, she’s counting down the days until she starts fourth grade, even decking out her room with Einstein posters to prepare for her new school where students will be immersed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Hollister is one of 150 third- to eighth-grade students who will begin classes Wednesday at the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School at Aurora University. Students hail from three local school districts and were chosen through a lottery after meeting certain academic criteria.

Five years in the making, the school has been praised as a model of collaboration among university officials, school district leaders, teachers, nonprofits, businesses and legislators. To allow the school to operate, state law had to be changed twice.

“We know that the work that begins here will reach across the nation and show other communities the pathway to truly creating an outstanding STEM-based academy for the future of our country,” said Rebecca Sherrick, Aurora University’s president, at the school’s Monday open house.

The school aims to teach young students about STEM and how it’s used in the real world so they may go on to study those fields at higher levels and bring their expertise to Aurora’s labs and industries in need of skilled workers.

During her tour, Hollister hopped onto a stationary bike that demonstrated by pedaling she could convert physical energy into electricity at a display from Commonwealth Edison, one of about a dozen corporations or foundations that provided major financial support to the school.

“It’s a lot different than my old school,” said Hollister, who is coming from West Aurora School District. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Many students expressed excitement about going to school in a brand-new $12 million building — $3.5 million came from state funding, while the rest Aurora University raised — that was constructed with them in mind.

Parents said they knew the school, with its specially designed curriculum and partnerships with local businesses, would present their children with future connections.

“I know this is going to be different,” said Bala Choda, whose 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter from Indian Prairie District 204 were both selected to attend the school. “For them, it’s going to be a great opportunity going forward.”

About one in six students who met the academic criteria to be entered into the STEM school’s lottery were chosen to attend the school. Earlier this year, there were plans for 50 more students to attend, but Oswego District 308 decided not to send students after the school board expressed concerns that the STEM school concentrated money on too few students.

Building design

The building includes eight grade-school classrooms, an open forum where classes can work together and six labs that will be shared by university and STEM school students.

The tables in the classrooms and most of the labs stand on locking wheels that allow teachers to easily rearrange their classrooms. Electrical cords hang from the ceiling so that equipment can be plugged in virtually anywhere, eliminating a traditional “back” or “front” of the room.

Classrooms have natural light streaming in through the windows — which helped earn the building sustainability points — and much of the piping, plumbing, insulation and shelving is exposed so that students can learn about how they work. A garden and a greenhouse are up on the roof and even the school’s boiler room and data center are enclosed with glass so that students can peer in.

Fredrick Wallace, 9, applied to the school after his elementary school principal at East Aurora School District encouraged him.

After a tour, Wallace said he liked the classrooms, the interactive whiteboards and the teachers.

“This is going to be the best school I ever went to,” he said.

‘Part of the problem-solving’

Nine teachers were recruited from the school districts to work in two- or four-year shifts at the STEM school. Three Aurora University faculty members will be teaching the students music and advanced algebra and geometry and working with special education students part-time.

The three districts are contributing about $1.1 million annually to the school to pay for the student’s instructional costs and teachers’ salaries and benefits, while Aurora University is paying $790,000.

Over the summer, teachers met for five days to learn about their new curriculum, which is based on the Next Generation Science Standards. Students will learn all their subjects, from math to English language arts to social studies, with science in mind, said Chetna Patel, who chairs Aurora University’s physical sciences department and helped develop the new curriculum.

Teachers also were trained on using new technology, as students will be working on laptops and will hand in many of their assignments online, instead of on paper.

Right now, Patel is working to make sure the STEM school teachers get training on how to use the more advanced equipment in the science labs, such as the 3D printers, so they can use them for lessons.

Arin Carter will be teaching third and fourth grade at the STEM school after working in West Aurora for 13 years. She was attracted to working in a new school with many resources, she said, as well as having more flexibility and time for students to explore.

“I wanted to see how it all played out,” she said. “If you’re going to be in something, why not be part of the problem-solving?”

Carter said she’s spent the summer building her lessons and learning from teachers that worked in other districts about the best resources to use in class. This week, her students will be taking apart a toy truck — reverse engineering it — and learning about each individual part. That will tie into her first unit about the life cycles of plants, animals and products.

Because the students are coming from different districts, there also will be plenty of icebreakers and pairing students up so they get to know one another.

Elizabeth Kaleta, who was a gifted education teacher in Indian Prairie 204, will be teaching sixth, seventh and eighth grades at the STEM school. She said though she knows many people are watching to see how the school does, this first year is part of a nine-year plan to build out the school.

“It’s the first time,” she said. “So there really isn’t necessarily a wrong or a right… It’s a long-term process.”

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