Full STEAM Ahead! Bird Rock Elementary joins District’s pilot program

A student tests his model rocket at the Bird Rock Elementary STEAM Night, May 1.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) launched its system-wide STEAM Initiative at a series of public schools, and Bird Rock Elementary is the first — and thus far only — La Jolla school to sign on.

The initiative looks to create a Transitional Kindergarten (TK) through 12th Grade pathway of scientific understanding, based on the skills that will be needed when these students leave high school and enter the high-demand, high-skill job market.

Cheryl Hibbeln, director of School Innovation & Integrated Youth Services, explained that SDUSD has been researching how to integrate more Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) lessons at younger levels, which led to the initiative.

In 2014, she explained, SDUSD reached out to its partners in the San Diego workforce and community colleges to prepare a report on the skills needed for the most in-demand jobs. The five sectors that rose to the top of the list were: advanced manufacturing (including engineering), information technology, clean energy, healthcare and life sciences.

“We took that research paper and started to align our pathway offerings and courses with those sectors,” Hibbeln said.

District STEAM Innovation Manager, Michael Goodbody, then developed a curriculum to be implemented in one-hour lessons, four days a week, to introduce scientific concepts in the youngest grades and build upon them to 12th grade.

A student looks through a microscope at the Bird Rock Elementary STEAM Night. Ashley Mackin-Solomon

Hibbeln added: “We were making good gains in the pathways … in the middle schools and we had a good foothold in the high schools, but as we entered TK-5 and started to read the research, we found in United States, less than 20 percent of elementary school-aged kids have science at all in their curriculum. Because of that, there isn’t this opportunity for exposure and awareness and getting kids interested in science concepts at young ages.”

Further, she said the data suggests the reason there aren’t more girls or people of color in scientific fields could potentially be due to a lack of exposure to this knowledge as children.

Through the new curriculum, at the Transitional Kindergarten and Kindergarten levels, students learn about living and non-living things, including weather patterns, season, changes over time, forces such as pushes and pulls, how humans impact the environment (for better or worse), and more.

Further, SDUSD developed teacher training programs so new teachers could implement the curriculum as written, and master teachers could bring their expertise to make modifications.

But perhaps most importantly: “We want to make sure that work-based learning is part of it,” Hibbeln said. “The content has to be paired with real-world experiences. For example, in a few units Michael wrote around living things for Transitional Kindergarten, we offered an experience at the zoo to give students a real-world application.

“What’s fascinating was that there were kids who had never been to the zoo, and others who had been there a lot. Our eyes were opened to the fact that we, as a District, need to maintain equity lines and close opportunity gaps. Just because a student goes to school in San Diego, doesn’t mean they have been to the beach.”

The roll-out of the Initiative started with what Hibbeln called “the coalition of the willing” of schools whose leaders volunteered. “We knew we couldn’t implement this system-wide, so we started with a pilot of a few schools,” she said. The year after, 32 schools were on board.

“(Bird Rock principal) Andi Frost said she wanted to be a part of it, which was a huge opportunity for us because she comes from a small science high school and understands what the demands are going to be on her students when they get to high school.”

No stranger to STEAM learning, Bird Rock Elementary hosts a STEAM night each year on campus. This year’s was on May 1.

Frost told La Jolla Light: “When I found out about the STEAM pilot initiative I knew that Bird Rock would benefit from the opportunity. The pilot offers strong professional development, incredible Next Generation Science Standards-aligned lessons and resources and materials. Further, we’ve heard from some of the other schools that implemented the pilot this year. The excitement of teachers in regard to the thinking and the work done by their students suggests great things to come!”

Students play with aquatic robots at the Bird Rock Elementary STEAM Night, May 1. Ashley Mackin-Solomon

She added: “We’ve been saying for many years in education that we’re preparing our students for a future we don’t know yet. For many decades our society evolved at a fairly predictable rate that allowed for small changes and improvements as needed. The tech boom changed this at an incredible rate and created a whole new world of possibility. While we don’t know what the future holds, we do know that we need flexible thinkers, problem-solvers, creators, inventors and collaborators.”

Going forward, Goodbody said he is looking to find more community partner volunteers to speak to classrooms or offer tours of their labs. To learn more, visit

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