Chief Education Officer Dr. Kristi Cole and Director of Technology Marc Anderson focus on tech at The Lincoln Academy in Beloit, Wis.

Apr 08 2022

Connected STEM Classrooms Break Down Learning Silos for K–12 Students

Schools are creating tech-enabled study spaces that emulate real-world work environments.

When it comes to preparing students for the science, technology, engineering and math jobs of the future, some school districts are getting a head start today.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2030, the total number of STEM jobs will grow by almost 11 percent — increasing about 30 percent faster than jobs in the overall workforce. Healthcare jobs, which usually require a solid STEM education, will grow 16 percent.

As a result, many STEM employers are collaborating with K–12 schools nationwide to help lay the foundation for a savvy workforce, and schools are responding by reimagining STEM education spaces to resemble real-world work environments.

“The closer we can mirror what’s out there in industry, the easier the transition will be for students and the more options they will have,” says Kerry Eberhardt, director of programs for the Morris County Vocational School District in New Jersey.

Schools such as The Lincoln Academy, a new charter school in Beloit, Wis., are taking that philosophy to heart. Among the corporate and community partners of the school is the Beloit Health System, which serves communities in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. In supporting The Lincoln Academy, which welcomed its first class in fall 2021, the regional healthcare provider hopes students at the K–12 school will develop an interest in medicine.

Click the banner to read CDW's case study on the ed tech that powers The Lincoln Academy.

“The health system’s CEO has been actively involved in supporting the school,” says Kristi Cole, chief education officer at The Lincoln Academy. “They need skilled employees, so they’d love to see certified nursing assistants coming out of the academy.”

In fact, among The Lincoln Academy’s 17 specially designed labs and learning spaces is its medical services lab, complete with a real ambulance. “Along with a learning track for CNAs, we have an EMT who trains our middle and high school scholars,” Cole says.

The school also includes an agricultural sciences lab complete with a “fork farm” wall of vertically integrated pots for growing hydroponic produce; an innovation lab with 3D printers, heat presses, vacuum formers and vinyl cutters; a recording studio with a green screen and sound booth; and a pair of computer labs where students learn about cybersecurity, coding and IT.

The Lincoln Academy even won a Technology Education and Literacy in Schools grant from Microsoft Philanthropies to support its computer science program and allow students to graduate with an IT specialist certificate.

“We’ve also created a room we call Chrome Depot,” Cole says, “where students will learn to repair their own Chromebooks.”

Taken together, the 115,000-square-foot Lincoln Academy looks like it could be part of a college campus or the headquarters of a tech startup: windows everywhere, moveable walls, ubiquitous flat-panel displays, collaborative technology and small group instruction rooms (much like today’s corporate huddle spaces).

“We created a place where our scholars can see what’s going on, feel like they’re a part of the action and get excited about learning,” says Cole.

WATCH THE VIDEO: 3D printers and hydroponics build confidence in students with disabilities.

K–12 STEM Education Evolves Alongside Technology

The Lincoln Academy is not alone in providing its students with innovative STEM classrooms. More schools are taking advantage of new technology to make STEM learning more real for students, which bodes well for the future STEM workforce.

“Coming out of the pandemic, schools have more connectivity and access to technology than they did before, which has been a silver lining for STEM education,” says Carolyn Sykora, senior director of standards programs at the International Society for Technology in Education. “The impact of technology on labs is significant. It helps bring more hands-on, experimental learning to schools.”

Sykora says that before schools adopted more technology, STEM education tended be very siloed. “Students would perform an activity, but it wasn’t connected to any other content,” she says.

New approaches to project-based learning have changed that, Sykora says. So has access to troves of digital information and collaboration systems that bring real-world experts right into schools. “A class I know designed a project to preserve oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, working with data from a local nonprofit and using computational thinking to identify where to build oyster castles,” Sykora explains. “This is where STEM education is moving: toward problem-solving, experimentation, experience and hands-on learning.”

On a recent school day at The Lincoln Academy, Director of Technology Marc Anderson was helping students solve a problem using tech tools that students probably wouldn’t have had access to years ago. “We were in the robotics lab troubleshooting some issues they were having getting their bots to connect with their Chromebooks,” Anderson explains. “It’s amazing what they’re doing.”


The percentage of STEM workers that made up the U.S. workforce in 2019

Source: National Science Foundation, “The STEM Labor Force of Today: Scientists, Engineers and Skilled Technical Workers,” August 2021

The Lincoln Academy was purpose-built from the ground up with integrated technology to support differing learning styles in its labs. The school has Cisco Meraki cloud-managed network devices and more than 60 wireless access points that provide connectivity throughout the Academy’s three stories. Every learning space, including the many small group instruction rooms, has at least one LG ultra-high definition LED TV connected to an Airtame 2 wireless adapter that allows students and teachers to share on-screen content.

“There’s a lot of dynamic interaction going on with the learning spaces and the scholars,” says Anderson. “With Wi-Fi throughout the building, they can connect to the computer numerical control machine, for example. They can build their models on their Chromebooks and send them directly to the machinery in the labs.”

The Lincoln Academy also has about 10 3D printers, which get a regular workout. The school recently created a learning unit in which upper-grade students helped younger students print dinosaur fossil bones and so they could go on an archeological “dig.”

“We’re excited to have the technology to create this kind of learning experience,” says Cole.

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STEM Buildings Prepare Students for Future Workforce Experiences

At Central Union High School in El Centro, Calif., the district recently funded an all-new STEM building with tech-enabled classrooms and labs designed to support interactivity and collaboration. “This is an effort to give our students industry-standard experiences, not simulations, because we want them to be as prepared as possible,” says Central Union High School District Superintendent Ward Andrus.

Every classroom in Central Union’s new STEM building is outfitted with a ViewSonic interactive display board and a Pilot X HoverCam mobile teaching station with a tablet PC and document camera. “The technology in the classroom creates a flexible teaching and learning space to foster collaboration,” says Monica Martinez, the district’s director of instruction and technology.

MORE ON TECH FOR TEACHERS: Equip educators for a flexible future.

In the labs, there is a main interactive display that the entire class can gather around to understand concepts. There are then separate monitors at each lab station that can display the information from the main screen or information and graphics that students may want to share with the class.

With the opening of the new STEM building, Central Union ushered in its first year as a completely one-to-one school, adding a critical layer of technology access for STEM students.

Like The Lincoln Academy, Central Union’s STEM building includes various breakout rooms with flexible seating and interactive displays for small group instruction and collaboration. And because some labs are much larger than a traditional classroom or have moveable walls to morph into even larger spaces, Central Union included audio amplification systems so teachers can be heard clearly. Everything is managed by teachers through Extron control panels, so they don’t struggle with various inputs and outputs.

“We’ve created a lot of these rooms to be very similar to what students would see at the university or college level,” says Eddy Avelar, instructional technology coach at Central Union High School District. The district even invested in an Anatomage Table, a full-scale touch display table for visualizing and exploring the human anatomy.

“We’re introducing students to things that they don’t normally see in school so they can make more informed decisions about what they do after leaving high school,” Avelar says.

Students’ Learning Mirrors Industry Experience

The Morris County School of Technology, which serves grades nine through 12 as part of the Morris County Vocational School District, has a similar lab containing an Anatomage Table and uses Extron technology for instruction in its academy for health care sciences.

Kerry Eberhardt pull quote

Photography by Yvonne Albinowski

Last fall, the district opened a new biotechnology lab with guidance and support from its advisory council members, many of whom work at the large biotech and pharmaceutical companies based in northern New Jersey.

“All of our career and technical education programs have industry partners. It’s what makes STEM education in CTE different,” says the district’s Eberhardt. “We ask our partners what a functioning lab should look like and include so that when students get into the field, they’ll have the skills needed for internships and jobs.”

Morris County’s new biotech lab was built inside a converted auto shop, with interactive smart boards for instruction and collaboration, computer workstations, and state-of-the-art lab equipment.

Eberhardt says when one biotech company heard about the new lab, it sparked conversations about how students could contribute to the company’s work by performing its tests in the district’s lab.

“In K–12 STEM education, we’re always talking about project-based learning,” Eberhardt says. “Often, we can only create siloed versions of project-based learning. But when we work with industry partners and create learning experiences that mirror STEM beyond school, we can take STEM education to a new level.”

KEEP READING: Tech leads the way to equitable education for K–12 students.

Photography by Matthew Gilson

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