Take a peek at the foundation of a specialized STEM high school and you might be surprised by what you find.
The schools are not built on science, technology, engineering and math courses, said Aimee Kennedy, chief academic officer of Metro Early College High School in Ohio.
"If that's all it took to be considered a STEM school, any school in the country could do it," Kennedy said Wednesday during a panel discussion at the 2013 U.S. News STEM Solutions conference in Austin.
[See the best STEM high schools in pictures.]
Instead, these niche schools are built on project-based learning, critical thinking and collaboration - a model that can be replicated at schools across the country, according to STEM school leaders.
"Too often we focus on what we teach," said Steven Zipkes, founding principal of Manor New Technology High School in Texas. "In reality, it's not what we teach, it's how we teach."
Most teachers rely on lectures as their primary teaching method, he said. The result is students are "bored out of their minds."
Bored students are not engaged students, he said, so at Manor New Tech, teachers don't lecture. They don't use textbooks or offer Advanced Placement courses, either.
Instead, students complete 65 projects over the course of the school year. After each project, they give a public presentation. The school partners with business leaders to develop the projects using real-world problems, then builds in state standards, Zipkes said.
[Don't fall for these STEM education myths.]
The approach earned praise from President Barack Obama, who paid Manor New Tech a visit last month.
"The folks around here are doing something right and I think the rest of the country could learn from what you're doing," the president said during his visit. "Every day this school is proving that every child has the potential to learn the real-world skills they need to succeed in college and beyond."
Mimicking the success of schools such as Manor New Tech and Metro Early College - which boast high attendance, graduation and college acceptance rates - requires giving teachers the autonomy to collaborate and create challenging lessons that integrate STEM at every level, the panelists said.
"It is easily replicable, but you have to have that mindset that it's not the same old, same old," Zipkes said.
Both schools look for teachers that buy into that philosophy and are willing to learn and develop alongside their students.
These teachers also subscribe to the belief that all students are capable of learning, said panelist Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, chief deputy commissioner of the Texas Education Agency.
"They're not sitting around whining ... saying 'Look what they sent me. How am I going to teach this kid,'" she said.
The agency oversees the Lone Star State's T-STEM initiative, which includes nearly 80 STEM academies serving more than 41,000 students across the state, many of whom are low-income and minority students.
These academies all follow a blueprint that includes personalized learning, counseling, professional development for students and teachers and advisory boards that bring together parents, teachers and business leaders.
"This isn't about creating a bunch of engineers," Reynolds said. "This is about maintaining rigor."
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