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Vashon Island's Experiment in School Construction + STEM Learning

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The Vashon Island School District faced two seemingly unrelated challenges shared by many school systems across Washington: it needed to replace its aging and dilapidated high school building, and too many of its students were struggling in math. So the district decided to tackle the problems in tandem.

Building a new school would require dozens of technical professionals and skilled tradespeople: architects, designers, engineers, contractors, landscape architects, surveyors, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, masons, heavy equipment operators, and landscapers. In short, for two years, the building site would be swarming with people who use science, technology, engineering, and math in their daily work.

District officials recognized this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to show the districts’ students the real-world value of math. Along with the high school’s students, 10 classes of kids at the nearby elementary and middle schools would watch with interest as their future high school took shape. They could learn why geometry matters from architects intent on building a school that would last a century, the importance of adding, subtracting and multiplying fractions from carpenters building the cabinetry in the science lab, applied principles of physics and geology from the crews working to build the geothermal heat exchange infrastructure that lies beneath the building.

How did they do it?

Working with a grant from Washington STEM, the district conceived the Real Time Math Project. The project is designed to help middle school students learn from real-world math challenges derived from the construction of the new high school, alongside STEM professionals from architects to engineers to land surveyors to plumbing contractors.

The idea was baked into the district’s working agreements with its contractors including Integrus Architecture. Indeed, partnering with the Vashon educators was a central element of the interview process with enthusiastic firms receiving a competitive advantage in evaluation criteria.

Architects and engineers brought the design problems of the project into middle-school classrooms this spring. How should the stairwells be built to both comply with code and promote learning? What problems of math and physics apply to the seemingly simple but daunting plumbing problem created when an entire high school goes to the bathroom during a 10-minute break between classes? Students eagerly tackled these problems and compared their solutions to the “real” solutions worked out by the professionals.

As Loretta Sachs with Integrus Architecture remarked, “When we heard there was an opportunity to work with students to do actual math problem-solving and have them think about how the building comes together, we were really excited because it was a whole new way to engage them.”

The project was so successful that Washington STEM made another grant to expand the program to the high school and elementary school, and document promising practices to help spread this idea elsewhere. Even now, teachers and the STEM professionals on the project are working on new ways to make math real for the students by using the construction of the new school. The idea has even bled into other subjects. Freshman English students make weekly observations of the project’s progress and write about it to strengthen their non-fiction writing skills.

Among the goals of Washington STEM is finding replicable and scalable ways to improve STEM teaching and learning across our state. This idea may have hatched in the small community of Vashon Island, but it can be used anywhere. Schools build new buildings and renovate old buildings every year, and students across our state are struggling in math and science. Let’s solve both problems in tandem.

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