Personalized STEM learning at Essex High School


New podcast episode: Essex STEM Academy

student-guided stem learningIn this episode, we talk with math educator and STEM Academy leader Lea Ann Smith about Essex High School’s STEM Academy and take a look inside a program that lets students pursue projects in medicine, engineering, computer science, mathematics or biology — by working with community partners during the school day.

Come hear how Essex High School is jump-starting personalized STEM learning with students working toward digital portfolios, project-based learning and community internships. The STEM Academy is joining a tradition of interest-based academies at Essex, which already includes opportunities for self-guided studies in writing, art, global cultures and business, where students work in cohorts called “advisories”.

Essex High School is not a 1:1 school currently, and in fact, according to Smith the STEM Academy is part of the school’s attempts to come to grips with technology.

Every student in the Academy has a Chromebook issued to them, but more than that, they have weekly one-on-one meetings and the opportunity to explore careers with partner organizations in the community.

These are the 3D-printed prosthetic hands Smith and I refer to in the podcast:

Podcast transcript below.

At Essex High School, in Essex, Vermont, students use a 3-D printer to create prosthetic hands which are distributed to recipients around the country. And students are not just getting credit for it, they’re adding the hands to their digital portfolios and scoring internships with local community organizations as well.

It’s all just another day in The 21st Century Classroom.

What’s it like in the STEM Academy?

Leanne Smith, educator and coordinator: Why don’t I start by telling you the requirements for the Academy, and then maybe we can see how that works. So, there’s the Advisory. We also have a lecture series. About once a month after school somebody comes in. This year we had somebody talk about careers in software development; we had somebody talk about a cube-sat, like sending up a little cubic satellite into space. VTC and UVM have a grant with NASA — that kind of thing — and you need to  do 10 of those throughout the course of the 3 years.

You need to enroll in the STEM internship class, and that just started this spring, a few classes ago. So that class gives you a 40 hour internship, and you also prepare another portfolio, but this one’s more about just your experiences in the internship class. And I also want to promote digital literacy. I want the students to create a personal learning network, blogs, twitter, we’re going to make a class blog, and I’m going to teach them how to  curate all the information they pull off the internet: Evernote, GoogleDrive, etc. So, how to function with the fire hose of information coming at you on the internet and do research around your specific career.

You go out and do your internship, and then you put all of that together in a digital portfolio. So that’s the internship class.

Hopefully at this point you’re at the end of your junior year, and then you put together an independent project starting in the spring of your junior year that you finish up, hopefully, by January of your senior year. The goal is to have something far enough along that when you’re doing your college application you have something that you can talk about. And then, for the spring, you can put your project in some sort of science fair, or some contest, or something. Those are the requirements, and that probably could give you a feeling for what a typical program for a student would be.

How do you get in to the STEM Academy?

The application process is pretty easy. Online there’s just a form you download, and then, you fill out the form, check some boxes. But the most important part is a letter you write where you answer some questions about things you’re curious about, things you might like to pursue. I look at that letter and I decide which strand to put a student in.

There’s 4 strands: medicine, life science, engineering, and computer science. And if you apply, you get in. It’s more registration than applying.

This is the second year that there have been students in the STEM Academy. The first year there were four students, kind of a starting year, and this year we’re up to 54.

That’s a big jump.

Smith: It is a jump. It’s– it’s gotten big. Part of it getting big, I think is we have a new setup in the school: we have an advisory. So, once a week students come together for 30 minutes in a homeroom kind of thing. It’s sort of a mixed age, hang out with the same teacher every year for 4 years. And, those advisories started last year. During an advisory in February we had all the freshman come down to the auditorium. There’s also an Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts, so the two academies did a pitch to try and entice more students, and it was successful, so… By April, we had, probably, 45 or so, and then more joined throughout the course of the year.

The applications just kept filling my mailbox. It was– it was a thing (chuckle). So six other teachers came on board to help. I thought it was just going to be one advisory with me and, you know, 12 or 15 kids or something, but with this many, we have four advisories, with, you know, an average of 12-13 students per advisory.

The first thing that happens is you get put into one of those advisories. And, the advisory is 30 minutes once a week. Which is a good start, but it’s hard to get a lot done in that time. I’m hoping that the school starts to put aside more time for personalized learning, which might happen, because that’s kind of a thing in Vermont right now. So you get put in the Advisory, and start with little projects, like those prosthetic hands that I just showed you. The computer science kids are working with Arduinos, the Life Sciences group has been doing stuff with DNA and electrophoresis. The Engineering group has been building stuff. They’ve been doing stuff with RHINO, an auto-CAD program, and some 3-D printing.

You also start working on a portfolio.

I’d like the students to have a record of everything they’ve done in the Academy, these little projects, and the other components. And I’d like them to use that portfolio as a way to communicate what they’ve done, and also communicate with their adviser, to help, you know, start a conversation about what their goals are and how they can move forward through their high school career.

The class is a semester long, it starts at the end of January. So we spend about a month putting together the portfolio, doing the research, doing the resume, and the cover letter, and some interview skills. And then, in between winter and spring breaks, so the months of March and April, the class only meets once every other week to kind of share our experiences. But, you have that time to go out into the community, and you do need to have time in your schedule outside of your regular school day. The class meets from 1-2:15, but that’s not really enough time. You need to be willing to set up, you know, maybe a 1-4, or, maybe some times when you don’t have a class, other parts of the day, or something. So, there is time outside of school for that.

When you’re talking about  having your students assembling a digital portfolio, what tools are you using?

Smith: We’re doing it on a Google Site. We’re a Google School, every student has a Google login, so, we’re using a Google Site for the portfolio.

So, if a student applies to be in the Academy and they want to start in Track A, and they decide they want to switch tracks, is that a possibility?

Smith: Oh, yeah. I am completely open to that. Somebody just talked to me in the Advisory yesterday who was in the medical advisory and asked if they could go try out coding because they were interested in that. And I said, “Sure.”

And she said, “How do I do that?”

“Well, I mean, just, you know, talk to the adviser. Just go, tell me it happened.”

I mean, it’s all about that. The mind is a thing that changes all the time, and that’s part of what I want to encourage. So, yeah. Switching around is perfectly fine with me.

The most important rubric for me, I think, is their portfolio. I want to demonstrate growth. It’s not really anything you get a grade in. You get the endorsement on your diploma if you fulfill all of the requirements. But, me personally, I call the STEM Academy a success if the student has grown, if they’ve learned something. Even if they’ve decided that science isn’t for them, I think it’s still a successful thing because they’ve learned, they’ve grown, and they’ve discovered something. So, what is written in their portfolio: their goals at the start of their sophomore year, all their projects, the reflection on them; it’s the growth I’m looking for.

I like to reach out to the community: you can’t have these internships and you can’t have these projects without community involvement. So, I have a mind map, I’m kind of all about this. So, I just have this giant matrix that I’ve been building of anybody who I think could ever be helpful. I want this Academy to reflect the community, and I’d like the community to see it as a place where they can be helpful, kind of give back, and also a workforce development element.

Smith came to teaching via the tech sector, so it’s no surprise that a lot of the impetus behind the STEM Academy is the hope that it creates connections that will lead to a stronger Vermont tech work force.

Smith: Teaching’s a second career for me. I used to work in the semiconductor industry. I moved to this area originally to work for a vendor to IBM (Applied Materials, they’re based in the Silicon Valley), so I naturally know a lot of people in that area, and I just love to reach out, and connect, and make opportunities for people.

Something that I think is huge in this area is coding.

Vermont seems to have missed a lot of the manufacturing part of the 70’s and 80’s; there’s not a lot of factories around here. So it’s a beautiful place to live, and I could envision: if we had a really strong broadband  infrastructure that, people could maybe, go to school, go away, make your connections, find out what’s going on in the world, but then take all that and come back to Vermont and make sort of a virtual thing.

Places like the VCET, the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies makes it feel to me like there’s really a buzz  around doing entrepreneurial kind of programming in this area. I would like to teach kids programming,  because I think that’s something that they could do, go away, come back, and then develop a solid workforce of coding people here. I think there’s other things, for sure, but there doesn’t seem to me to be quite  so many jobs in the research and manufacturing sector here, so I’m developing people with those interests, but something I just have  imagined that could be kind of special is to develop a coding workforce for this state.


The music you hear in the background of the episode is a song called “Bed Spring”, by the Oakland-based band Dirtwire, used with permission. You can find more music by Dirtwire at

Part 2: Mark Olofson talks with Ian, an Essex High School senior and STEM Academy member… who also happens to be teaching the arduino strand.

Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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