Stephen W. Hawking Uses STEAM to Engage Students in Learning

December 11, 2015

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You never know what you may encounter on a typical day at Stephen W. Hawking Charter School. One student may be building a model space ship that he plans to use to travel to the moon and back, in an attempt to collect moon rocks to study and sell. You may find a 9-year-old student building not one, but 11 human-sized robots out of cereal boxes. These student activities may sound atypical; but in reality, it's all in a school day's work at this San Diego STEAM-based charter school.

Hawking Charter School was founded in 2012 in an effort to serve 150 students in kindergarten through third grade. Today the school serves 400 students through sixth grade, and has a waiting list of students eagerly hoping for a spot in every grade. The school's core focus was - and continues to be - STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). It is the only South Bay elementary school where STEAM permeates nearly every facet of the classroom. The school focuses on an interdisciplinary and project-based, hands-on approach to learning that rigorously connects student learning with the real world challenges.

The Integration of Science and Core Curriculum

Hawking began as a grassroots effort among parents throughout the South Bay community. The model of integrating science with every facet of learning was part of that initial community's vision for the school.

"The organizers saw a need for science and math, and this was not something that was a focus in the elementary schools in the area," said Carmen Diaz, Executive Director of Hawking Charter. "The founders embraced STEAM through a project-based learning model, and how students will gain a deeper understanding of concepts and real world applications and critical thinking skills."

The hallmark of Hawking's STEAM-focused curriculum is the way it integrates with other core competencies, such as literacy and writing. The learning is then taken a step further when it's applied to real-world problem that needs to be solved. And the students are the ones who do the research and solve the problems.

For example, kindergartners may tackle the question of what happens to trash. They visit a trash site to understand the problem, which also helps peek their interest. That question is explored in science, art, reading and writing prompts. All those elements are integrated into STEAM to answer the essential question.

Students at Hawking are also taught to integrate their STEAM learning with public speaking skills. They are taught as early as kindergarten to be proud of their work and present it at assemblies and in the classroom in front of parents.

A Commitment to Community

"Without our community, we would not exist," said Diaz. "They frequently volunteer and plan all fundraising events." Diaz credits the passion of the parents for bringing so much to the school's curriculum and culture.

It is that passion and commitment that prompted Hawking to hire Danielle Mestas, the first parent liaison position for the school. Mestas herself has three students attending Hawking (a daughter and two nieces). Her daughter began her schooling at Hawking in kindergarten and Ms. Mestas said the experience has been nothing short of amazing.

"I love the feeling here," said Mestas. "I felt welcomed and when I went to ask the teacher if they need help, it was appreciated. I wanted a place where I didn't have to drop off [my kids] and leave right away. I wanted a school that cared what a parent had to say. I wanted to stay involved in my child's education." That's exactly what she found at Hawking.

In her role as Parent Liaison, Mestas organizes fundraisers and field trips, as well as coordinates parent volunteers. She leads biweekly meetings and organizes parents to get everyone involved so they have a voice in the school.

"I want to make sure all the parents know what's going on at Hawking," said Mestas. She makes sure parents are informed by keeping communication strong in emails and through the school's Facebook page. She also encourages dialogue with parents who cannot volunteer in the classrooms on a regular basis and creates monthly newsletters.

Like all the parents and educators at Hawking, Ms. Mestas is committed to making sure the students are enjoying their school experience.

"My kids have fun!" said Mestas. "They do volcano experiments and so much hands-on work that the kids like coming to school to learn. Our main focus is the kids - what they need in their education and making it a fun, positive environment to learn."