What’s So Hot About STEaM at the Waukesha STEM Academy?

by Eric Hill, Educator Effectiveness Coach, Waukesha STEM Academy; Giselle D’Souza & Christina Minz, STEM Students, Institute for Personalized Learning Youth Advisory Council members

STEaM is a big deal at the Waukesha STEM Academy. STEM traditionally stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, which are important aspects of the learning experience here. We also have a part of our day that intentionally focuses on the application of this learning, referred to as “STEaM.” This project based, real-world application block allows for collaboration between students, teachers and community members as we use a design process to solve challenges in our world today and for the future. It is one of the most impactful experiences for students during their 3 years at our school, and heavily focuses on the Customized Learning Paths element at the center of the Institute’s Honeycomb Model, providing personalization in interests, learning style, pacing, and rigor. STEaM is empowering and engaging because it is all about student choice and advocacy. Students choose what experience they want to engage in, and then within that experience, what they want to focus on and how they will present it. It allows students to focus on their interests, to see what they like or dislike and what their strengths and weaknesses are. This also helps students to understand what they may want to pursue later in life, based on their experiences, successes, and failures throughout the project.

As previously mentioned, students are given a large amount of choice during the STEaM experience. It starts with students identifying the project that is right for them. Students participate in an all school gallery walk where they learn about the STEaM experiences that are available, which range from student and teacher created projects to global experiences like TED-ED. Students then take a survey to express their interests, after which staff are flexibly moved to help facilitate projects based on the needs of the student body. Some students may even choose to engage in the same project over several STEaM rotations in order to enhance their previous work or tackle a new challenge (See the full list of STEaM opportunities HERE). Once students choose a project of interest, they start the collaborative process with their facilitators and peers to tackle the “problem and purpose” at hand. Often times, projects are designed around collaboration through interest based cohorts, or small groups based on what students are doing in that STEaM experience. For example, in the Student Proposal STEaM project, students are placed in groups based their passions, interests, or personal strengths, which helps to facilitate collaboration and the generation of ideas for their project and how to enhance it. Interest based cohorts also create a culture of support and help to build a classroom community because students are able to connect with new people who have common interests.

The STEaM experience creates a number of opportunities and helps to develop skills and dispositions that will allow students to be more successful in their future. For example, there is a large focus on collaboration, on both small and large scales, which teaches students to constructively work with peers and use their collective genius to problem solve. Time management is another skill students develop through STEaM, as they are expected to work within certain time constraints, meet deadlines, take ownership, and hold themselves accountable to personal and group timelines and goals. Finally, STEaM is about innovation and thinking outside of the box through an iterative design process, as there is no “right answer.” Students learn to think critically, develop a solution and test it, which often results in failure; but for every failure there is a lesson learned, leading students to develop a disposition of “failing forward.”

The culminating experience for the students is “Making Student Thinking Visible” and “Going Public” during a STEM Student showcase, which is open to peers, parents and family, cross district teachers and leadership, collaborating businesses, and the community. This is an opportunity for students to share their thinking and reflect on their experience in a public setting, while also creating a culture of collaborative learning through which students learn from one another and the various projects they pursued.

A Different Type of “Grading”

Another high leverage tool that is incorporated in the STEaM experience is the Personal Success Continuum for reporting and feedback. The Personal Success Continuum focuses on the personal success skills of engagement, creativity, innovation, thinking, and collaboration and allows students to grow and reflect in these areas. The Personal Success Continuum is used throughout the STEaM process for self reflection, peer feedback, and formative and summative assessment by the STEaM Advisor. Overall, this tool helps facilitate student advocacy and agency and informs students of which skills and dispositions are strengths and which need more development.

It is important to understand the difference between getting “graded” and receiving feedback on the Personal Success Continuum in this personalized learning setting. The Personal Success Continuum allows for students to reflect, advocate, and engage in their work at the level of proficiency and complexity that is right for them, allowing students to be more metacognitive and move at their own pace. Furthermore, proficiency based learning and grading is much different than traditional grading practices since students are assessed on what they can show and are given multiple opportunities and modalities to demonstrate their level of proficiency. The big takeaway from this is: It is not about a test or an end product, rather STEaM is about the process, experience and how you show your learning and grow as a student. (Note: The Waukesha STEM Academy has moved to proficiency based reporting and feedback through the use of continuums school-wide, in all content areas. Learn more HERE).

The Key to Creating an Engaging STEaM Experience at Your School: What the Students Say

  • When creating a STEaM experience, give your students a voice to ensure you know and are acknowledging your student body’s demographic, needs, and passions.
  • You want to make sure that students have an opportunity to share their own voice and be their own best advocate, not feel forced into an experience.
  • Try to develop projects and experiences that incorporate student interests with the passions of your staff as well, allowing for greater student engagement, student to staff relationships, and ensuring a meaningful experience through which students can generate quality and innovative work.
  • It is good to have an option of a class like student proposal, which lets the student create their own projects based off interest or passions, with guidelines to help structure the backbone of the components needed.
  • Don’t let time stifle your creativity. Various projects and experiences might take place along different time frames. Creating some shorter and longer projects will allow students (and staff) more flexibility.
  • Focus the development of the STEaM Experience around the core of the Honeycomb to ensure it is a student centered experience.

Join Us for Our Public Showcase

Waukesha STEM Academy – Saratoga Campus
130 Walton Avenue
Waukesha, WI 53186


  • Friday, December 22nd (1:45-2:45) – Science Inquiry and Invention Showcase
  • Friday, January 5th (9a-12p) – District Competition for the Future Cities Project
  • Wednesday, January 10th (4p-6p) – School wide STEaM Gallery Walk. Come see student showcases from 6 different STEaM Projects!