Indian Prairie School District 204 serves more than 26,000 students from preschool through grade 12 in the suburbs of Chicago. When the district’s dedicated STEM school closed, Laura Nylen– IPSD 204’s Director of Digital Learning and K-8 STEM Integration–knew it was time to reassess what STEM was going to look like in the district’s elementary schools.
While SAM Labs offered the flexibility and support she wanted in a program, Mrs. Nylen knew it was going to be a challenge to implement it on a wide scale. She brought on Elizabeth (Liz) Kaleta as a STEM Integration Specialist in the fall of 2022. Over the past year, Mrs. Nylen and Ms. Kaleta, also known as the SAM Sisters, have made amazing progress implementing SAM Labs into IPSD 204’s elementary classrooms and are incredibly optimistic about the future of the program.
Portrait of a Graduate
In the fall of 2018, Indian Prairie School District 204 and the community sat down to create their own Portrait of a Graduate.
“That was the first piece of really looking at what we want to see students graduating with,” Mrs. Nylen explained.
The long-term goal of the Portrait of a Graduate was to guide the school district as it developed a strategic plan to ensure all students graduate with the skills they need to succeed. This includes not just academic core competencies but soft skills as well. However, as Mrs. Nylen noted, it can be difficult for teachers to measure growth in these competencies the same way they do skills like math and reading. One of the biggest benefits SAM Labs has had so far is helping teachers see those competencies in action.
Elementary Campuses of All Sizes
IPSD 204 has 21 elementary schools, and where some of these elementary schools might have around 200 students, others may have up to 800 students. This made Mrs. Nylen’s goal of fully integrating an equitable, district-wide STEM program for all elementary school students a challenge. There could be no one-size-fits-all solution for getting SAM Labs off the ground in every classroom in every school, and certainly not all at the same time.
In April 2022, Mrs. Nylen and the Deputy Superintendent presented the idea of integrating SAM Labs into their classrooms to the elementary school principals of the district. As IPSD 204 does not have instructional coaches in its schools and principals would need to serve in this capacity. She now acknowledges that the timing wasn’t great on the heels of another year of COVID-induced chaos and teacher shortages.
“I really listened and looked at their faces and realized, ‘I’m sounding like I’m putting more on their plates,’” she recalled.
Supporting Teachers with SAM Labs
IPSD 204 realized that if they were going to make a district-wide STEM program a reality, they were going to need additional support. That’s why they brought Ms. Kaleta on in the fall. Ms. Kaleta and Mrs. Nylen spent September meeting one-on-one with principals to invite seven schools to participate in an implementation year. They worked with each principal to identify gaps in their School Improvement Plans and how SAM Labs could help fill those gaps. By the end of the month, they had 7 schools that were willing to participate in the implementation on some level.
Ms. Kaleta went into classrooms herself to co-teach and model for the teachers as they implemented the new program beginning with the starter lessons. Then she started by choosing one SAM Labs lesson for each of the three main content areas in the district’s elementary science curriculum: Earth Science, Life Science, and Physical Science. She prepared the lessons, complete with supplies, that she could take into classrooms to help support teachers. In every class she presented to, students were hanging off her every word, excited and engaged by the lesson. Word quickly got around, and soon teachers were scheduling time when Ms. Kaleta could come into their classrooms and implement SAM Labs’ lessons..
Ms. Kaleta credits her SAM Labs customer success team with the success of the implementation program.
“Anytime that I felt that we needed an answer to something, I know that I have a point person that I could reach out to, and they’d get back to us right away,” she said.
In addition to having their customer success representative, Mackenzie, join their professional development programs, founder and CEO Joachim Horn visited the district to meet with the teachers.
“He was right in there with our teachers, he was tag teaming it with me, he wasn’t just trying to sell us,” Mrs. Nylen recalled. “So it was about more than just trying to sell a product. It was really trying to help support teachers, and that, again, sets you guys apart.”
Looking Forward: Equity
In the 2023-2024 school year, Mrs. Nylen and Ms. Kaleta are bringing additional schools into the program. While the IPSD 204 STEM Implementation Plan Timeline included bringing on 7 more schools next year and the remaining 7 the next year, many of the 21 elementary school principals have expressed interest in being part of year 2 implementation. Mrs. Nylen and Ms. Kaleta will collaborate with the Curriculum and Instruction Team to provide structures to all buildings ahead of schedule. The goal is to continue to build on the enthusiasm and buy in, while also being intentional about ensuring the needed job-embedded instructional support for teachers is in place.
“We just have to continue to be flexible and know that each building’s going to look different,” Mrs. Nylen explained. “We may have just a couple grade levels or a couple teachers at a grade level. That’s going to make it a little more difficult from an equity standpoint, but we’re okay with that…That means that we’re doing the real work.”
IPSD 204 also plans to offer professional development opportunities over the summer for teachers interested in integrating SAM Labs into their classrooms.
Implementing something new in education is not easy, but Mrs. Nylen and Ms. Kaleta persisted and are both still smiling when they talk about the work they have done. When asked how they keep moving forward, Mrs. Nylen replied, “All you have to do is go into a classroom and see Sam Labs in action with students, and it just ignites a spark.”
Shaunda Douglas is a former educator with over 15 years of experience in all levels of education. In her free time, she reads, plays with her dogs, watches baseball, and loves a good nap.