Student engagement is key to STEM reforms, principal says

Manor New Tech High School Principal Steve Zipkes


Manor New Tech High School has plenty of bragging rights, including a recent visit from President Barack Obama. But a key statistic that Principal Steve Zipkes brags about is the school’s 96 percent attendance rate — proof that the students want to be there.

“Our kids want to come to school,” Zipkes said. “I have to kick them out. I know it sounds funny, but I’m serious; I have to run a 5 p.m. bus, or they won’t go home.”

Zipkes, who was asked by the White House to participate in a work group on high school redesign, will be one of the panelists at this week’s U.S. News STEM Solutions national conference in Austin. STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is a national education push to better equip the workforce for the rising number of jobs that require skills in those fields.

Manor New Tech is a model for project-based learning — using hands-on collaborative projects to teach core subjects, with a heavy emphasis on technology. Zipkes will serve on a panel discussing lessons traditional high schools can draw from schools like Manor New Tech.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Zipkes.

Statesman: What did the president’s visit mean to the school? What was it like behind the scenes?

Zipkes: Everyone was all pumped up. I was in the building just waiting. Everything had been orchestrated a week and a half in advance.

He went through two classrooms that had three or four different projects in each classroom. I don’t know what I expected, but you know what? He was engaged. He was listening to what students had to say; he was asking them relevant questions. It wasn’t just like a photo op.

You could tell he really was serious and interested in what was happening in the school and how the students were working on these projects. It was refreshing.

How did your visit to the White House come about?

I found out when I went up there that (Obama) was very impressed with the school and the way our students were learning. That we were doing things differently and we were making connections with students, and it wasn’t just a gimmick school or a specialized school that couldn’t happen anywhere. This is something that could be transformed across many, many schools across the country. Really what it was about is we are going to be an ongoing work group, focusing on high school redesign with the incorporation of business partners, community colleges and high school. What does that redesign look like and what can this group do to make national change? I am excited and honored and humbled to be included in this group. When I looked around and read everyone’s bio, I thought, what am I doing here?

How has STEM affected public education?

When we started the school seven years ago … we didn’t say to students, “Come over here; we’re going to teach you more math and science.” We promoted to students, “We’re going to teach you in a different way. You’re going to get hands on; you’re going to work in projects; you’re going to work together. And we’re going to integrate technology.” It was about getting kids over here.

That’s what we’re seeing nationally. It’s not about offering kids more math and science classes. It’s about how to make those math and science classes authentic, relevant. It’s about bringing more students into STEM rather than just taking the top students we already have and giving them STEM.

How do you teach writing skills and reading comprehension in the STEM-heavy curriculum at Manor New Tech High?

I’ve always stated that STEM is not about math, science, technology and engineering — that’s your invisible focus. It’s really about getting your students prepared for 21st-century skills. Can you communicate? Can you collaborate? Can you problem-solve? Do you have a strong work ethic? Do you know how to do research? They need those skills. Those skills will get them in as technicians, will get them into the STEM fields.

To me, STEM is about teaching 21st-century skills every day in every content. It’s about integration of content. You cannot sit and lecture kids.

How would Manor New Tech be different if you were to launch it now instead of seven years ago?

This is the first time in education’s history that education has changed because of technology, not because education wants to change. When we started, our one-to-one meant students could go into the classroom and access technology. We had iMacs and we had PCs. If we opened now, I’d look more at blended learning – anytime, anyplace, anywhere learning with mobile devices. If I had any work stations, they would be power sources for students to be able to go in and do some kind of final cut or something else. I’m not talking about homework. I’m talking about authentic, meaningful work outside of the classroom that students would enjoy working on with their mobile device.

I would start working with businesses more. Give me more authentic problems, so when I create a real project with a real problem, students know they’re working on something that’s meaningful and that someone from that corporation will be on that panel evaluating those projects. So students see there are meanings behind the projects; they’re not just made up or pulled out of some library or textbook.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Enough is enough. How long are you going to let students fail?

Are we going to sit there and continue to lecture to our students or are our teachers going to have to find new ways to deliver instruction? Does it take more work? Yes, it does. But look at the rewards you get out of it. You get the autonomy to create your content and how you deliver that instruction. And your students become more engaged.

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"How long are you going to let students fail?" That is a very pointed question. Hats off to Principal Zipkes for his vision and for Manor ISD for not standing in his way.

11:02 a.m. Jun. 17, 2013

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