A three-year push for problem-solving curriculum and to better prepare students for careers in the global marketplace recently helped Ridgeview Junior High become the first STEM-designated school in the Pickerington Local School District.
In April, administrators and staff at Ridgeview were informed the Ohio STEM Learning Network had selected their school to join approximately 25 others throughout Ohio that have been recognized for taking steps to train the next generation of scientists and technology leaders.
By being designated as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) school, the Ohio STEM Learning Network concluded Ridgeview has taken, and continues to take, steps toward shifting teaching and learning practices from memorization learning to challenging students to work collaboratively to solve real-world issues.
Ridgeview also was recognized for creating partnerships with entities such as the Pickerington Police Department, Violet Township Fire Department and businesses and colleges from the area to facilitate solutions-based classroom lessons designed to challenge students' creativity and prepare them for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
According to Ridgeview Principal Susan Caudill, there are 27 STEM-designated schools in Ohio, and "a handful" of those are middle schools or junior highs.
She said Ridgeview began working toward its designation three years ago after she directed her teachers to begin to divert from traditional teaching and learning standards where students memorized and recounted lessons.
Instead, they asked students to come up with solutions to real-world problems.
Seventh-graders began working on an anti-drug campaign, and eighth-graders sought to develop inventions to make life easier, as well as marketing strategies for their inventions.
"Students were communicating and collaborating and coming up with solutions to problems," Caudill said. "It was a lot of trial and error.
"We started really trying to develop the staff and train the staff to teach in that way."
In addition to working with local public safety forces and area businesses, students' classroom lessons included Skyped discussions with a U.S. Air Force pilot and college professions.
Teachers also began to undergo a wealth of professional development training. Ridgeview also has landed a $7,500 "mini-grant" to continue teacher training in STEM.
"We take a lot of real-world situations and (students) apply what they learned in the classroom to solve a problem," Caudill said.
"A lot of employers say ... students work in isolation, they do a lot of memorization and regurgitation, but they're not able to work in collaboration.
"A lot of what you see in (a STEM-based) classroom is student-led, and the teacher is there as a facilitator.
"It's not traditional. You don't just see kids sitting in rows and the teacher talking."
Eileen McGarvey, a Ridgeview school counselor, said students often are placed in groups, and they quickly learn to delegate responsibilities based on each member's knowledge and skills.
"This really engages all students," McGarvey said.
"In the same group, you have all different abilities and they all bring something to the table, which is really cool.
"They're taking more ownership of what they're learning."
McGarvey and Caudill said the STEM teaching and learning model challenges students in new ways.
They added that it sometimes inspires students that typically have struggled under the memorization format, and it challenges students who previously thrived academically.
"We're asking both students and teachers to get out of their comfort zones," Caudill said. "We all have permission to fail as long we don't accept that failure.
"(Failure) is a learning opportunity."
The school has partnered with Kohls, ING Financial, the city of Pickerington and Franklin Park Conservatory.
Students also will work with Dawes Arboretum to continue to develop its outdoor learning lab.