By Kristy Kennedy, Special to the Tribune
1:57 PM EDT, August 5, 2013
Next year, 200 elementary and middle school students from Indian Prairie District 204 and other west suburban school districts will work in labs designed by their teachers and staff at Aurora University, along with scientists and business people from the likes of Argonne National Laboratory, Fermilab, Caterpillar, Waste Management, Nicor Gas and Tellabs.
The John C. Dunham STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy at Aurora University will begin construction in the next couple of weeks with funding from a $3.5 million capital investment recently announced by Governor Pat Quinn and $7 million in private dollars. That leaves the school about $2 million short of its fundraising goal, organizers said.
What makes the school unique is the collaborative effort between the school districts, Aurora University and area businesses to design the school and craft the curriculum.
"Our curriculum was based on STEM principals and our units are built within a real-world context. That way, our students are problem solving real world issues," said Allison Sherman, director of curriculum for District 204. "Who better to write that curriculum than teachers and people from the corporate world who are experiencing challenges. It's a direct alignment to the real world. You can see this is not your typical science class."
The school, an expansion of Stephens Hall on the Aurora University campus, will house a multipurpose room, visitor's center, eight classrooms and six labs. The labs were designed to explore different areas of science like energy or biomedicine and biomaterials using the expertise of scientists and business leaders. Nicor, for instance, took a significant role with the energy lab.
The school will serve 200 students in third through eighth grades, 50 from each participating district including District 204, East Aurora Public School District 131, Oswego Community Unit School District 308 and West Aurora School District 129. Once admitted to the program, students can remain through their eighth-grade year. All four districts will use the same admittance criteria and will be looking for students passionate and talented in math and science who represent the "diversity of the community in the participating districts," Sherman said.
Teachers from the four districts will serve in two- or four-year appointments and have the opportunity to do graduate work in STEM areas of study at Aurora University. The idea is those teachers will take practices from their experience back to their home districts when their appointments are up. Teachers at the cooperative school also will partner with businesses in the community to work on curriculum and projects.
Students will learn the ins and outs of business from design to the supply chain process to manufacturing and production to quality control, said Sherry Eagle, executive director for the Institute for Collaboration at the university.
"Students will gain the knowledge to become viable employees," Eagle said. "The corporate sector will say they want to hire people, but that there is a dearth of prospective individuals who qualify for these jobs. The key is to get students motivated and thinking about these areas at a younger age."
Partner school districts, Eagle said, wanted the school should serve younger students to develop interest earlier, Eagle said.
"We also felt programmatically that we could start younger and that the maturity would be there with a third-grader."
Partner companies are excited about seeing solutions students come up with to solve problems in the real world. "The kids may come up with the best solution," Eagle said. "They may have an 'aha' that was never imagined."
Corporations and foundations funding the school include Cabot Microelectronics, Caterpillar Foundation, Commonwealth Edison, Dart Foundation, Dunham Fund, Exelon Foundation, Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, Nicor Gas, Tellabs Foundation, VVF and Waste Management. Planning for the school also included input from Fermilab, Argonne National Laboratory and SciTech Hands On Museum in Aurora.
Some details, like the cost of the program to home districts and final curriculum plans still are being worked out. While Common Core education standards will be implemented in the curriculum, the structure of the school day is still in the planning stages.
Eagle hopes the school's curriculum and the school itself will be copied across the state and even the nation.
"That would be the biggest compliment," she said.
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC