The "Great 8": Looking at the Traits of Successful STEM Schools

By Discovery Education

A new study finds eight common elements of successful STEM schools

By Cindy Moss
Vice President of Global STEM Initiatives, Discovery Education

It’s no secret that today’s educators are focused on tomorrow. Given the rapid changes in the workforce, it is incumbent on teachers and administrators to prepare students for the unknown careers of the future. But how do you prepare for the unknown?

I believe STEM holds the key. Even if a student is not preparing for one of the STEM jobs of the future, an exposure to STEM can “future-proof” learners by helping them develop the important communication, collaboration, creative, and critical thinking skills any future career will require.

In 2015, the University of Chicago’s Outlier Research and Evaluation group published its STEM School Study (S3), an in-depth look at the inner workings of 23 STEM schools nationwide. Researchers conducting this study found eight common elements that compose a successful STEM school.  These commonalities informed Discovery Education’s approach to STEM education, and we think these traits provide school systems a basic foundation on which to build their own STEM programs. (Also see LFA's Elements of Success, which identifies broad commonalities of successful schools.) 

Here is a list of those commonalities, and our perspective on what makes them so important:

1. Problem-based Learning

Successful STEM schools are engaged in hands-on-inquiry, side-learning inquiry, and they’re actively doing interdisciplinary learning. These are all important to ensuring that kids are not learning facts in isolation. They’re doing cyber investigations; they’re looking for real-world connections. They’re learning content to solve problems, modeling what they will be asked to do in the workplace post-graduation.

2. Rigorous Learning

Kids have great fake meters. They know the difference between a real-world problem, and the unrealistic hypothetical problem pulled out of a textbook. We need to respect kids enough to give them real problems that will spark their interests. When you give kids the chance to solve a real challenge, like creating an invention that would help kids elsewhere in the world get clean water, you are creating a depth of engagement that is unparalleled, and as we know deeper engagement leads to improved academic achievement.

3. School Community and Belonging

Educators need to model for students how collaboration is the best way to solve problems.  Kids see plenty of examples of competition in their daily lives, but few examples of adults working together to collaboratively solve problems. That’s important, because students will begin to discover that creating lasting solutions requires a community of individuals who bring their unique talents to the table together. When kids see the power of community, they can visualize where they all fit in the STEM pipeline.

4. Connecting Careers, Technology, and Life Skills

Students who are taught valuable life skills such as collaboration and critical thinking that will help them in a future career innately sense they are learning about concepts that matter, not just amassing information for a state test they’ll forget in a week.  High-quality digital curriculum such as the Discovery Education Techbook series and the digital resources found in the Discovery Education STEM Connect service can help educators link what students are learning in the classroom to exciting STEM careers that will keep them engaged as they connect the skills they’re learning to real-world opportunities beyond the classroom.

5. Personalized Learning

If you’re trying to get all kinds of kids into the STEM pipeline, you have to help them understand which of their skills are strong and which must be strengthened. That’s why the personalization of learning is so important.  By personalizing the learning experience, teachers can help their pupils take more control of their education, address those skills that need attention, and pursue learning opportunities that truly interest and engages the student.

6. External Community

We need to value kids enough to let them do something purposeful in their communities. Instead of telling a 5-year-old, “Sorry, wait until you’re 25 to help change the world,” encourage them to explore how they would solve a local issue. Let them see that they can make a difference right now, in their immediate surroundings. We want kids to be “glocal.” By having students investigate and work on local issues in their home and community, students learn how local challenges fit into the global context.

7. Modeling Lifelong Learning

One of the goals of STEM is turning kids into lifelong learners. If we just tell them to be a lifelong learner without demonstrating our own commitment to continuing education, it becomes a lie. Instead, students should see staff who have a growth mindset in all their pursuits.

Too often, students come to school seeing adults as merely the dispensers of knowledge, and students as the recipients of that knowledge. But at a successful STEM school, those rules are not set in stone. Kids should see that adults are learning just as much as the kids. And that means that sometimes adults have to try something that might end up not working.  Students need to understand that problems they’re solving are not always solved quickly and easily. Lasting solutions take time and iteration. That's what STEM is all about.

8. Family Involvement and Essential Ingredients

A successful STEM school is so much fun and so engaging, kids don’t want to go home — and when a school is buzzing, parents want to be involved. Successful STEM schools find ways to include parents in learning and helps caregivers as they support valuable STEM skills at home.

Finally, too often I encounter districts who are all-too-willing to write large checks for new STEM labs with state-of-the-art equipment. While that is fine, it is important to remember that to be successful in STEM learning, teachers need only a few things — flat tables, access to the Internet and high-quality digital content, a source of water, and the ability to go outside and learn.  If there are extra funds available for STEM education, I encourage school systems to think about investing in professional learning that will build STEM capacity.

In my own life and career, I’ve seen STEM’s ability to unlock the student potential and improve our society.  I encourage all educators to look at these eight traits of successful STEM schools and conduct their own self-assessment.  Does my school use digital content to showcase future STEM careers?  Do we seek family involvement?  Do we model lifelong learning?  Reflect on these commonalities and how your school system is addressing each of them in their quest to drive engagement in STEM education.  Your students are depending on you to do so!

Dr. Cindy Moss ( is Discovery Education’s Vice President of Global STEM Initiatives and travels the world helping companies, nonprofits, Ministries of Education and school districts understand the importance of STEM education and how to implement it successfully. She previously served 10 years as the PreK-12 Director of STEM for the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system. While there her work to decrease the achievement gap helped earn the district the Broad Award. As a teacher Dr. Moss taught Biology, Chemistry, Anatomy and Earth Science for 20 years, and earned numerous awards, including the Milken National Educator Award.  

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education.

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