Nine-year-old Luke Shimizu uses a magnifying glass to have a closer look at a leaf with education assistant Kate MacDonald at the Elizabeth Buckley School. The school is the first in Canada to adopt a curriculum focused on literacy in science

Powering school on science and math

Victoria independent school first in Canada to adopt curriculum focused on science literacy

This past spring, students in Grades 2 and 3 at Elizabeth Buckley School in Victoria sprouted seeds as part of their study of plants.

But instead of memorizing passages from a textbook before watering their seeds, the students formed hypotheses on how the plants might develop and eliminated possibilities through class discussion along the way.

“We recognize that the kids learn very well in a hands-on kind of way,” said Roberta MacDonald, principal of Elizabeth Buckley School, an independent school that will become the first STEM school in the country this September.

STEM – for science, technology, engineering  and mathematics – schools began cropping up across the U.S. during the past two decades and operate on the idea that literacy in each of these subject areas is as important as the development of language skills.

Elizabeth Buckley will officially adopt STEM next month, but the school has long since implemented some of the teaching methods, which favour experiential learning over memorization.

“We all recognize that literacy is very important, yet there are kids who feel they’re not very good at science and math, and write that off, saying ‘I’m just not a science person,’ or ‘I’m just not a math person.’”

The phenomenon seems to be accepted, particularly with girls around the middle school years, said MacDonald, also an Elizabeth Buckley parent.

“But what if your child came to you and said: ‘I’m just not a language person,’ would we accept that?”

The school began 25 years ago for students with hearing impairment, but today it serves all students, whether they’re typical, special needs or gifted.

“It’s not necessarily that our kids are different, but we want our kids to see ‘different’ differently than when we were raised,” said Laurie Waye, Elizabeth Buckley parent and co-chair of its board of directors.

MacDonald, the former director of Science Venture, a STEM outreach program at the University of Victoria, had run science camps and wanted to find a way to meet an un-met need in science education.

Subjects aren’t taught in isolation, rather in hands-on activities that foster discussion and critical thinking, MacDonald said.

Music, physical education and math, for example, are taught through a game of clapping and moving to rhythms.

Science, art and language are covered when kids create trading cards for various animals and elements of the ecosystem.

Lessons on astronomy and First Nation heritage have been taught by local experts, partnerships the school hopes to build into the future.

MacDonald is involved in developing guidelines for digital literacy – something Waye feels went unaddressed by the public sector.

Greater Victoria Board of Education chairperson Peg Orcherton  said part of the difficulties within public education is to maintain and upgrade technology under tight budgetary restrictions.

Student achievement goals in the Greater Victoria district are built on literacy and numeracy in the early years to meet the needs of new technologies, she added.

“There are so many different pedagogies on education,” Orcherton said. “Education is constantly changing and evolving. The issue is trying to get everybody to buy into the best way to educate. It’s supposed to be equitable and accessible for all.”

Fifty per cent of the operating costs at Elizabeth Buckley are provided by the province and the other half from tuition fees; $360 per month or $3,600 per year for local students, or $7,200 per year for international students.

“We saw the (STEM) research coming out of the States, which was incredibly persuasive and we realized we actually had a really good fit for that curriculum,” Waye said.

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