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STEMChat: 5 Ways BASIS Independent McLean Will Use STEAM to Empower Students

STEMChat: 5 Ways BASIS Independent McLean Will Use STEAM to Empower Students

BASIS Independent McLean Head of School Sean Aiken

Education World chatted with Sean Aiken, the Inaugural Head of School of BASIS Independent McLean, about how his school will help empower students through an enriched STEM + Arts curriculum.

BASIS Independent McLean (in McLean Virginia) is the third independent school to join the charter school network, following its other schools in both Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, New York. It is slated to open in Fall 2016.

Mr. Aiken provided some fascinating insight into the philosophy the school will use to develop successful and well-rounded students from pre-K-12th grade.

Here are five ways BASIS Independent McLean plans to follow in the footsteps of other BASIS schools that advocate a STEAM curriculum:

  • Students who begin as pre-K students at BASIS Independent McLean will be exposed to a rigorous STEAM curriculum.

"For starters, all students in a BASIS Independent Early Childhood and Primary program are required to take visual art, performing art, AND music as part of their core field of study,” Mr. Aiken says.

Mr. Aiken described the importance of developing and enforcing a curriculum that moves students along a well-thought-out path.

"For those families who start with us in PreK, that amounts to 6 years of robust exposure to three artistic disciplines as a vital component to developing critical and creative thought. By the time these students arrive in middle school, they’ve internalized the importance of continued artistic study and have a deep foundation of knowledge by which to inform their choice of future pursuits. Arriving to adolescence, our students choose to dive into painting, acting, ceramics, or instruments not because they’re looking for a ‘break’, but because they’ve had the opportunity to determine how those expressive vehicles contribute to their understanding of themselves and the world around them. You can’t do that if you don’t start early.”

  • Students will provide useful feedback to guide the school’s development and progress.

BASIS Independent McLean is opening for the first time in 2016, and it will rely a lot on student feedback as it progresses in its first year onward.

Important to a brand new school culture, Mr. Aiken says, is providing students with authentic experiences which they can use to build a solid foundation for understanding STEM disciplines.

“[W]e believe it is essential to involve our students in the creation of their new campus. Whether that amounts to feedback on which teaching candidates should be hired, how facilities should be designed, or what resources need to be secured, we both model STEM approaches to problem solving and require students to be participants in that process, not just spectators,” he said.

  • BASIS Independent McLean will replace the “token internship” with an interdisciplinary research program called The Senior Project.

In order to best help students begin to realize their passions, BASIS Independent McLean will forgo the token and oftentimes stale internship program to offer its students The Senior Project.

"Rather than enrolling in token internships to bolster their college applications, the Senior Project takes place for the last trimester of their high school career. We want to empower students with the ability not just to work in a lab, but to ask an interesting research question,” Mr. Aiken says. Aiken says the Senior Project helps students best apply STEAM values while articulating their interests.

"How does econophysics help us prevent another rapid global economic collapse? What do different piano instructional methods teach us about how children learn? How can Foucault help us understand the physical structures of the immigration court? How do humans relate to glaciers and what does this say about our relationships with the environment as a whole? Most importantly, none of those questions was generated by a teacher – they originate from a structured, methodical exposure to different kinds of inquiry and a willingness to unleash the creative energies of our most engaged students.”

  • A plethora of extracurricular activities will help students experience a true individualized learning experience.

BASIS Independent McLean will allow for students to have a truly individualized learning experience through the many extracurricular activities that will be available for them to choose from. From the robotics club to the Science Bowl, students have unique options on how to get involved outside of the classroom depending on what interests them.

"Some students are motivated by competitive drives, and for them clubs like Math Counts or Science Olympiad are great fits to fulfill those desires. Others are more entrepreneurial and so they may want to learn computer coding or concoct new inventions out of a spirit of innovation. And still others are simply curious and want to learn more, and they may try and apply new models to stock market investments or research production components of a school literary journal,” Mr. Aiken said.

Mr. Aiken explains how these kinds of extracurricular activities help students achieve more without the pressure; while achievement results, it’s not pushed as the end goal.

"Our students are able to achieve more by way of these activities because they don’t do them purely to advance their achievements. They have a passion for each of these fields, which means they get to define success on their own terms. Given that freedom, they tend to achieve much more than they thought possible, but those victories are more a byproduct than they are a goal."

  •  BASIS Independent McLean students will have access to maker spaces, to learn and create in.

Called the Industrial Arts Lab, students will have access to an area that “will come equipped with both traditional and modern tools to help students navigate the engineering and design process. That includes everything from tape and glue, to saws and screwdrivers, to 3D printers and CNC machines,” Mr. Aiken says.

But aside from the traditional maker space, BASIS Independent McLean also offers students a kind of maker space with a focus on art creation--emphasizing further the school’s commitment to STEAM.

"I would also add our art rooms into the conception of maker spaces,” Mr. Aiken says.

"Not only are they joined by a kiln, but they have their own gallery space and one classroom window that displays right over the main lobby so that anyone who enters BASIS Independent McLean will be treated to any number of creative examples of student work.”

And as the school grows, it will begin to utilize the 100,000 square feet of untouched space it has available, what Mr. Aiken says has the potential to be “the coolest maker space” of all.

"When our school reaches a size that the second half of the building will become necessary, I can’t wait to involve our students in that conversation. Can you imagine getting to meet with a world class architect and talk about what you want to have in your school? Think of the possibilities. Already we’ve heard ideas for animation studios, greenhouses, and recently one of my students told me she wanted us to build a battle-bot arena for the Robotics club. I can’t wait to see what we make of that space in the future,” he says.

When summing up his belief in a commitment to a hearty STEM curriculum mixed with a liberal arts core, Mr. Aiken described its importance in 21st century learning.

"Today’s students will not only have to invent new technologies and systems, but they will have to breathe their own meaning into unseen moral and ethical challenges as well. These problems demand an interdisciplinary approach paired with the ability to listen to people who know more about a given part than you do.”

"At heart, liberal arts, STEM-focused education teaches our kids how to learn and reason about new information. That, perhaps above all else, is what we know our students will need facing the exciting changes of the 21st century.”

To learn more about Head of School Sean Aiken, go here. To learn more about BASIS Independent McLean, visit this page.

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