Explore the 8 elements of STEM schools

What defines a STEM school?

The STEM School Study (S3) team sat down with inclusive STEM school leaders from over 25 inclusive STEM schools and asked them to describe the parts of their schools that are essential to their school models. We found that while STEM schools vary in many ways, there are eight major Elements common to them all. Each Element is comprised of a number of components and together, they illustrate what STEM schools are and lay the groundwork for understanding how STEM schools work to achieve their goals.

The 8 Elements include six core Elements that we equate with the STEM schools’ key educational goals:

  1. Problem-Based Learning
  2. Rigorous Learning
  3. School Community and Belonging
  4. Career, Technology, and Life Skills
  5. Personalization of Learning
  6. External Community

The remaining two are supporting and contributing Elements:

  1. Staff Foundations
  2. Essential Factors

Explore the 8 Elements using the tabs to the right, and keep reading below to understand more about how schools enact the Elements, how we developed this framework, and how it can be useful to you.

Download a PDF of the Elements here


The components of this element center around the idea that learning should be customized
for each student’s ability and interests. Examples include:

Teacher Differentiation of Instruction Based on Learning Needs

The teacher customizes instruction based on ability, learning styles, and developmental levels of the students.

“Research, all research points to better-prepared students, better problem-solvers, from students who are able to address situations and solve problems themselves. So one of our big goals is to have as much learner-centered education going on as possible. Differentiation is huge for us; we want to make sure we're meeting the needs of all of our students regardless of their levels.”

Teacher Facilitation of Student Interest

The teacher develops interest by relating students’ lives and experiences to a lesson or unit. This also includes differentiation of the learning experience based on student interest.

“It’s important that we build relationships with every student and family so we know what their interests are. The goal is to get kids to understand the world in which we live. I learned that students pay more attention to the world if they care”.

Teacher Use of Assessment to Inform Instruction

The teacher uses information on current student understanding to inform and plan future instruction.

“We use a system in which our students are given diagnostic tests at the beginning of the year to see what their levels are. From that data we can then group the students according to their instructional level to really try to individualize their education a little bit more.”

Other Personalization of Learning components:

  • Advisory
  • Small School and/or Classes
  • Flexible Schedule
  • Student Access to School Throughout the Day
  • Teacher/Partner Facilitation of Students Engaging in Career-Readiness Activities
  • Teacher Facilitation of Student Autonomy
  • Staff Support Needs of Whole Student
  • Students Engage and Participate in Career Readiness
  • Students Demonstrate Autonomy


The components of this element are related to the development of skills that students will
use in future careers and life.

Early College Activities

Students participate in early college activities such as college courses.

“We try to incorporate college readiness standards throughout 9-12, doing activities that will help with our pathways. Students don't have to apply to be in a pathway, but we do have pathways that are outlined within our course descriptions that students can follow to make sure that they're preparing themselves for whatever course of study they may choose at the college level.”

Students use Technology

The teacher uses current and emerging technologies in instruction; students use technology as intended for learning purposes.

“Currently all of our students have personal laptops that run on Chrome. So they have access to that technology in every single one of their classes, without necessarily using it in every single one of their classes. But they have access. There are some classes of course that rely very heavily on their technology. There are other classes in which the technology acts as a resource and a support system for the curriculum.”

Students use Workplace and Life skills

Students use the skills of communication, creativity, collaboration, leadership, critical thinking, and technological proficiency.

“All of our students do have to do presentations in all of their subject areas. One of the pieces of research that we found really interesting a couple years ago, is that a lot of students who graduate with really high abilities in science and math typically are very introverted, and they're not necessarily communicating with their peers as much as students who are not really focusing on those areas. So that's something that's really important to us as well… Because we live in a global society, so our students need to be able to communicate with all facets of that society.”

Other Career, Technology, and Life Skills components:

  • Instructional Themes
  • Partners Support Instruction
  • Teacher Facilitation of Student Autonomy
  • Teacher/Partner Facilitation of Students Engaging in Career-Readiness Activities
  • Teacher Facilitation of Students Learning Skills Specifically Related to the Workplace and Life
  • Teacher Facilitation of Teamwork and Collaboration Among Students
  • Teacher Models Use of New and Current Technologies
  • Students Cooperate and Work with One Another as Teams
  • Students Demonstrate Autonomy
  • Students Engage and Participate in Career Readiness
  • Students Engage and Participate in Service Learning
  • Students Participate in Demonstrations of Learning
  • Students Participate in Early College Activities
  • Students Participate in Higher Education Exposure Activities


The components of this element address rigorous and challenging learning, including
cognitive demand.

Real-World Content

Students make connections between what they are learning and real-world experiences, current events, and/or their daily lives.

“We want to see our learning environments across curriculum areas in authentic problems. Students are empowered to solve them because there are many solutions.”

Staff-Created Curriculum

Teachers and/or administrators create all or parts of the school’s curriculum; this includes creating specific projects.

“We respect teachers as professionals. We let them use their data to create projects. I trust my teachers to cover standards in the way that they want. This takes teaching to another level. Projects become a teacher’s hobby. Teachers are always thinking about projects”.

Cognitively Demanding Work

Students use thinking and process skills. This includes considering alternative arguments or explanations, making predictions, interpreting their experiences, analyzing data, explaining their reasoning, and supporting their conclusions with evidence.

“The habits are the first that come to mind. They were identified as work habits that anyone in the 21st century will be looking for in employees. Those habits should result in higher test scores. If you teach a kid how to think, the standards take care of themselves. The PBL model gets kids to dig deep- research, critical thinking, will this work?”

Other Rigorous Learning components:

  • Core Course Sequence
  • Mastery Learning
  • Partners Support Instruction
  • Teacher Facilitation of Students Making Interdisciplinary Connections
  • Teacher Use of Assessment to Inform Instruction
  • Students Make Interdisciplinary Connections
  • Students Participate in Tutoring
  • Students Participate in Early College Activities
  • Students Take Risks


The components of this element are central to school culture but are non-instructional.

Students Treat Each Other with Trust and Respect

Students have an established sense of trust with one another and exhibit respectful behavior.

“Culture is so important. We want them to respect themselves and others. We push this. It sinks in, and I see it when the freshmen come in and the older students complain that the new students don’t get the culture. We hope they leave with a desire to further their education and those 21st century skills.”

Extracurricular Activities

Students participate in sports and clubs that take place outside of regular school hours.

“We also encourage all of our students to be as involved as possible outside the classroom. So while we want our students to be successful academically, we understand that to create a holistic student that's going to be successful beyond high school, that they need to be flexible, they need to be well rounded. So all of our teachers are asked to offer clubs or extra-curricular activities beyond school hours.”

Student Induction Process

Program or activities that support new students’ transition to the school

“It’s for our incoming 9th grade students, students who will be new to our school. We run it for two weeks… We use it as an orientation time for our school, because our students come from every section of town… We want them to get to know each other a little bit so that when school starts, they’re not coming in as strangers. So they’ll know their classmates. We also use that time to go over the core values.”

Other School Community
and Belonging components:

  • Small School and/or Classes
  • Student Access to School Throughout the Day
  • Teacher Facilitation of a Positive Social and Emotional Learning Environment
  • Staff Emphasize Code of Behavior and Values
  • Staff Support Needs of Whole Student
  • Students Contribute to School Decision-Making
  • Students Demonstrate Code of Behavior and Values


The components of this element address the goal of problem and project-based learning.
Examples include:

Interdisciplinary Instruction

Students identify ways that disciplines are interrelated, and how they reinforce and complement one another.

“PBL ties across the entire curriculum. It’s integrated throughout everything we’re doing in the whole day. When we designed the gaming platform, the English teacher said I’m going to work on prose and poetry… The product at the end was that they had to produce a prose to market their game on. In robotics unit, they had to do a lot of technical reading and writing. So that’s what she focused on. And they had to write a technical manual.”

Student Autonomy

Students have independence in and ownership of their learning. Students set goals for their learning and make choices about how to accomplish them.

“The big thing is learner-centered education. It's one of the main components of our mission statement as well; that we really think students should be driving their own instruction. So that's kind of the basis where all of our problem-based learning, project-based learning comes from as well. We want self-discovery happening. Research, all research points to better-prepared students, better problem-solvers, from students who are able to address situations themselves, and solve problems themselves.”

Students Reflect on their Learning

Students consider the strengths and weaknesses of their learning approaches and ways they can improve them.

“We want a reflection built in. Students are metacognitive on the process. We figure out how it’s going, how they can change and do better next time. This is a great process. It’s built into the work they do in a daily basis.”

Other Problem-Based Learning components:

  • Interdisciplinary Teams
  • Intersession
  • Problem-Solving Projects
  • Staff-Created Curriculum
  • Partners Support Instruction
  • Teacher Facilitation of Teamwork and Collaboration Among Students
  • Teacher Facilitation of Students Making Interdisciplinary Connections
  • Teacher Facilitation of Student Interest
  • Teacher Facilitation of Students Engaging in an Engineering Design Process
  • Teacher Facilitation of Students Engaging with Real-World Content
  • Students Cooperate and Work with One Another as Teams
  • Students Make Connections Between the Content They are Learning, the Real World, and Their Lives


The components of this element reflect a connection between STEM schools and the
broader and external community, from neighborhood to state level.

School Establishes and Maintains a Community Presence

Staff creates and develops partnerships with organizations external to the school.

“The most important thing is our deep and enduring connection to our community. We do a lot of community involvement. We actually have people from STEM disciplines and beyond to work with kids and build ongoing professional and sustainable relationships. We want the STEM jobs in our community to be filled by people that come from our community. Community is definitely a general border- if people are willing to come here; they are part of our community. We will extend this invite to anyone who is willing to show up and work with students”.

Students Participate in Service Learning

Students participate in service learning or volunteer activities.

“We work very hard on community type of projects. For example, not just during the holidays, but you're going to hear -- well, all right, we're going to collect coats because -- they're collecting coats. Or "our students are going to do that." But we also do recycling. Right now, I don't know the exact count, but we have about -- I'm going to say near 30 students, let's say 25, 30 students, from our senior class, that have taken the accounting training where they are actually helping our community. They volunteer hours to help our -- they help our community people with their income tax”.

Staff Spread Practices

Staff share with others practices they enact in their classrooms and school.

“Two of our teachers are working with [another school], so they go over to teach those teachers about the project-based program. We’re looking at expanding that next year… maybe even sharing one of our teachers throughout the year to go over and work with teachers over there… One of the best things that we can do is that we can share information.”

Other External Community components:

  • Staff Establishes and Maintains Partnerships
  • Partners Facilitate Spread of Practices
  • Partners Help Establish and Maintain Community Presence
  • Teacher Leaders Facilitate Communication Across Campuses


The components of this element enable and/or support desired school staff interactions
and instructional behaviors.

Staff Collaborate

Staff work through problems and develop ideas together.

“Brand new teachers are great. We can form their early teaching practices. We put new teachers with more experienced teachers. Our teachers are hardworking and good-natured. The teachers collaborate and support one another succeed”.

Staff Reflect on Work

Staff consider the strengths and weaknesses of their practices and ways they can improve them.

“It’s important that teachers are experts in data. Teachers determine their students’ needs. Then they build projects around students’ gaps. It’s good because you don’t have to rely on the central office. This does create a sense of ownership. We look at state assessments. And every 3 weeks teachers create a short 10-question assessment based on standards. We use this information. We run district assessments. We do formative assessment all the time in the classroom. We are also looking at student work- we are reflective as a staff on their work. We use this to reflect on our instruction, so we can help students be more successful.”

School Leaders Facilitate Staff Growth and Development

School leaders ensure that staff members have opportunities to grow in their roles as STEM school teachers and leaders.

“As a leader it’s important to understand what you’re asking teachers to do, and help facilitate project design and critical thinking things to help teachers create stronger practices and support students when they are struggling with things.”

Other Staff Foundations:

  • Common Planning Time
  • Individual Planning Time
  • Non-Instructional Staff
  • School Leaders Model Instructional Practice
  • School Leaders Model and Support Risk-Taking and Autonomy for Staff
  • Staff Engage in Relevant Professional Development/Growth Activities
  • Staff Have a Sense of School Ownership
  • Staff Participate in Decision Making
  • Staff Treat One Another with Trust and Respect
  • Staff Work with Autonomy
  • STEM Instructional Leaders Support Instruction


The components of this element are environmental factors, staff attitudes, and other
situations external to the school model itself that STEM school staff identify as essential.

Staff are Flexible and Open to Change

Staff are willing to engage in new practices and adjust what they do for the greatest benefit for students.

“Things do change and we change. We are able to morph the program as needed. We adapt as necessary. We have a flexible approach because the world has changed in the 4 years since we’ve been open. We want to stay on the leading edge to give them a world-class experience.”

Representative Population

School recruits and enrolls students with a focus on reflecting a population representative of the community/area the school serves.

“We aren’t a magnet- we take whoever we get. It wouldn’t be uncommon to hear a kid say that they hate technology. It’s our job to turn them on to it and expose them to it. You are better off as a result of exposing them. We do have those kids who are super geeked out and they create apps and stuff. We are just trying to turn people on if they are off and push them further if there are already into it.”

Professional Development Resources

Resources available to help teachers and staff develop and further their skills.

“We have a PD institute in the summer. It’s paid through our grant funds. We are looking to sustain that with other funds. It’s a 4-5 day PD that is led by teachers in facilitation with others as needed- Partners at the U of Washington. We have good support and researchers that help us with information.”

Other Essential Factors:

  • Family Involvement
  • Online Management System
  • Open Physical Space
  • Regional School
  • Partners Provide Money/Material Resources
  • Standards
  • Staff Believe All Students Can Learn
  • Staff are Flexible and Open to Change
STEM School Infographic

The components that comprise each of the 8 Elements are the concrete ways that members of the school community enact the Elements in their schools every day. We identified these 78 components, or building blocks, through our conversations with STEM school leaders around the country. This infographic of the S3 STEM school components allows you to see all 78 components and their definitions. You can also explore the components by school and by type.

Click the image to the right to visit the Infographic.

S3 Infographic

What do STEM Schools do?

Where did this come from?

The 8 S3 Elements emerged from four years of research with over 25 inclusive STEM high schools across the nation. This research took a “ground-up” approach in that rather than beginning with a definition of what we thought a STEM school should be, we asked the STEM schools to tell us what they are.

Outlier interviewed individuals in each STEM school to identify and describe the most important components, or building blocks, which contribute to the success of their school. We then coded the interviews establishing common themes, and identified 78 components. These components include structural components, such as specified time set aside for Advisory or cross-departmental collaboration, and behavioral components, such as students participating in early college activities or teachers facilitating a positive social and emotional learning environment. These components allow us to look at what STEM schools are and what they are doing in a very concrete, detailed, and measurable way—however, we also wanted to describe what STEM schools are more generally.

Working with the interview data and informed by appropriate literature, we organized the components into categories that emerged across the schools. Ultimately, these categories became the 8 Elements.

The Element descriptions, above, and the infographic of the S3 STEM school components illustrate the goals of inclusive STEM high schools, the contexts and conditions that support them, and the 78 components that comprise them. In the STEM School Study Roadmap Findings, we describe how we believe these components work together to achieve STEM school goals.

How can I use the Elements?

If you are a practitioner at a non-STEM school who is interested in bringing STEM to your school or district…

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As someone new to STEM, you might be asking yourself “What is a STEM school anyway?” Explore the Elements to see how STEM school leaders describe the components that are fundamental to meeting their educational goals. You can also explore how schools enact these Elements with the Infographic.

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If you are a practitioner at a new or emerging STEM school…

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In working with STEM schools across the country, we’ve found that while STEM schools often have different goals and focus, there are 8 common themes across them. The 8 Elements of STEM Schools can help give schools and leaders context for how they focus energy and resources. By exploring how components map onto these 8 Elements through the Infographic, practitioners at emerging STEM schools can reflect on their practices and strategies and the underlying educational goals they serve.

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If you are a practitioner at an established STEM school…

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Practitioners in established STEM schools may be confident in their school models after years of refinement. Leaders in these schools can use the 8 Elements and their components to articulate their school model to others. Additionally, like new and emerging STEM schools, established STEM schools can utilize the Elements for reflection and to consider how the current model components work together to achieve the STEM school’s goals.

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