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How Failure and Solving Real Problems Help This School Thrive

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Students designed and built an ice castle window display that was 30 feet deep. (Courtesy Michael Stone)

When Michael Stone was considering a job at the STEM School Chattanooga he was a little skeptical at first. He had been a successful traditional high school calculus teacher and he wasn’t totally sure he bought into the project-based learning model. Proponents always described it to him as though students should do all the work with no help from him -- something he couldn’t imagine in calculus. But a tour of the school -- led by a student -- was all he needed to see what an education there was all about.

The student started off by explaining that the grading policy encouraged students to attempt an assignment, mess up, identify the failure points and try again. This same approach was applied to teaching, and students saw how Principal Tony Donen and teachers modeled this same approach in everything they did. The other big emphasis: assessing process skills alongside content knowledge. Stone knew that if a sophomore could so clearly articulate a vision of education so different from many traditional high schools, he needed to be there.

Stone took a job as the Fab Lab Director and Project-Based Learning Coordinator and became intimately aware of the process skills that formed the foundation for everything happening at the school: collaboration, critical thinking, and innovation. His job was to find partners in the Chattanooga business community who had real problems they needed solved and to coach students as they worked together designing solutions. His main goal directive: grow students into adaptable problem solvers.

Grading to promote from PEF STEM Innovation Hub on Vimeo.


Stone reached out to businesses and told them all he needed was an authentic problem they needed solved and two hours of their time. He was surprised at how easy it was to build partnerships when he wasn’t asking for money. One of his first big takers was EPB, a big electric utility and telecommunications company in Chattanooga. Every year EPB creates holiday themed displays in their office windows featuring lots of lights. The company asked STEM School Chattanooga students to design prototypes for the window dressings.

After nine weeks of developing their ideas and fabricating intricate small scale designs, the six student groups presented in front of a panel of EPB executives. The company wanted to fund each group to make their designs at full scale and wanted it done quickly for the unveiling of the windows.

Originally Stone had only wanted an authentic problem and audience for his students, but now the students kicked into overdrive to make their design ideas a reality, some of which were not easy to build at full scale. The most difficult was an ice castle, that when finished was 30 feet deep and made of plexiglass bricks that students engineered on CAD and printed with the 3D printer.

Working on these projects with his students helped Stone see some of the magic behind a motivating project like this one. One student on the ice castle team who was not the type of kid to “be in the brochure” realized that when the spires on the castle leaned they would lose some strength. So he pulled out his phone and looked up how to recalculate how much weight they could bear, which involved trigonometry. Later Stone heard him tell a friend, “Hey, that trig stuff is pretty useful.” This student had never been particularly successful in math before, but his dedication to the project created an opportunity for him to discover the content he needed to solve a real problem he faced.

Another member of the ice castle team was a typical “good” student. She always turned her homework in on time and demonstrated leadership, but when faced with the prospect of actually building the ice castle they had imagined at scale, she was paralyzed.

“ ‘I’m only good at school, I can’t make anything that actually matters,’ ” Stone recalls her saying. He had to coach her through her fear of creating something real and in the process became completely convinced that these kinds of challenges are necessary in today’s schools. And EPB was so delighted with the students’ work that it highlighted the partnership in its annual report.


Students don’t enter the STEM School Chattanooga with the skills, experience, and self-confidence to build incredible life-sized window displays for major utilities. They are coached throughout their time at the school in intentional ways. Principal Tony Donen says science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is not about having more of those things, it’s about teaching those things through projects that integrate them and the process skills required to work together, figure things out and come up with a unique idea in the first place.

“Collaboration is probably one of the most difficult skills for a person to learn because there’s so many facets to it,” Donen said. And, while many schools profess to teach collaboration, Donen said it doesn’t really matter unless educators have thought carefully about how the skill builds as students progress through high school. In other words, what specific things make an 11th grade student better at collaboration than a 10th grade student?

Since collaboration is a core value of the school, educators have developed a schema to build up those skills. In ninth grade, students focus on diversity, learning about who they are and how to work with people who are different from themselves. In 10th grade they work on holding one another accountable, a difficult task if you don’t already know them and their patterns well. In 11th grade they focus on time management both individually and as a team. Students work on carving out time and space for different stages of a project to ensure it all gets done. By their last year in high school students are working on collaborating beyond the walls of school, networking and connecting with experts in areas of interest. They are developing an entrepreneurial venture and getting advice from outside “teachers.”

The same clear cut path exists for the other two pillars of the school: critical thinking and innovation. Donen recognizes that kids walk into school with phones that can tell them almost anything, but they also have learned dependence on teachers to tell them the “right way” to do an assignment. The critical thinking progression is about helping them to understand the tools they have and how to apply them to problems they face.

“Now they’ve gone from, ‘I can’t do this without my teacher telling me what to do,’ to ‘my teacher’s not even the expert,’ ” Donen said.

In their content work, students are doing projects that often overlap in theme with other subjects and could even be related to the bigger semester long project they’re working on in the Fab Lab. Students are graded based on mastery, which allows students to try, fail, try again and improve both their understanding and their grades.


Thriving STEM School Chattanooga teachers weren’t necessarily chosen for their existing knowledge of project-based learning or how to use the equipment in the Fab Lab. Instead, Donen says the one quality he’s looking for in every good teacher is that they like kids and can relate to them. He calls this the “it factor,” the one fundamental quality that he can’t teach an educator. From there he says he can teach educators the classroom management skills to get kids working productively on a task. And once they can do that, he says he can teach them to make the activities they are working on engaging. And after all that he works with them on how to give effective feedback to students so their work goes from good to great.

As a coach for teachers, Donen employs many of the same practices he expects teachers to use with students, including recognizing that teachers are individuals with strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and preferences.

“I’m really thinking about their personality type when I’m coaching them because that plays into not only their strengths, but also where they need to put in more effort,” Donen said. For example, some people are big picture thinkers. They get excited about ideas and how they connect and can come up with amazing projects that engage kids. But those people are often less detail oriented, so the amazing idea can fall apart in the implementation phase due to lack of planning. When Donen notices that, he’ll try to point it out and help that teacher think ahead about the details so the project turns out as well as he or she imagined it.



The number one coaching misstep Donen sees is when education leaders take an effective teacher and try to turn every other teacher in the building into that teacher. That strategy doesn’t work because people are different and what works for one won’t work for another. It’s the same problem the education system has with students: standardization is not the same thing as personalization whether it relates to good teachers or successful students.

“You have to be able to highlight [teachers] strengths and make sure their weaknesses aren’t taking away from their strengths,” Donen said. That’s the key to being a good coach. He also says modeling effective collaboration is a big part of ensuring that teachers collaborate well and in turn students collaborate.

“When you have a shared vision and it’s embedded in your culture the teachers don’t talk about more work,” Donen said. “The work just becomes different. And the culture becomes less competitive.” At the STEM School Chattanooga, Donen has all the traditional jobs of a principal, so he can’t be the only person giving teacher feedback. Instead, every teacher is a resource for other teachers in the areas where they are strong. And, the kids get to see teachers working together, running into disagreements, struggling to find answers and compromising.


“We cannot expect students to collaborate effectively if we’re not trying to do the same thing,” Donen said. This equitable stance and lack of hierarchy extends all the way to the simplest things in the school like dress code. Students and staff have the same dress code, a small way of indicating that everyone in the building is on the same level.

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