Evaluate, revise and transform

SMU plays a key role in pioneering West Dallas STEM school

First grader Benjamin places four zebras in a row on his table. Karen Pierce, SMU project director at Dallas ISD’s West Dallas STEM School, helps him place three cats beside the zebras. Together they craft a story problem – four zebras plus three cats equal seven animals.

Benjamin struggles with math, so his teacher recommended his inclusion in the pilot study analyzing the effectiveness of activities that prepare students and stimulate their interest in a new subject before introducing it in the classroom, a practice known as anticipatory learning.

Pierce, an SMU STEM education expert who advises the school, observed that the activity works best one-on-one instead of as a small group activity. SMU’s collection of data and analysis of what is learned guides the practices of the STEM school and will serve as a road map for other STEM schools derived from this model.

Austin Hickle, Marion Walker and Dean Stephanie Knight tour construction of STEM Alley at the West Dallas STEM SchoolThe West Dallas STEM School  opened to seventh and eighth graders in 2021, a partnership between the Dallas Independent School District, Toyota USA Foundation, SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development and the West Dallas community. Pre-K3 through first graders were added in 2022, and additional grades will be added each year until the school serves students from pre-K to eighth grade. SMU’s comprehensive research and evaluation of the school’s programs and practices will guide the school’s operation. Toyota plans to invest $110 million to help replicate this partnership model at 14 sites in the U.S.

The school brings together four integral components.

  • Gives West Dallas students access to quality STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
  • Provides professional development for educators.
  • Offers services from community nonprofit organizations to alleviate issues such as literacy, nutrition, transportation and after-school care.
  • Provides necessary measurement to support a model of continuous improvement through the Simmons School’s Center on Research and Evaluation (CORE).

Person and child painting

The school’s anticipatory learning pilot project reflects a key aspect of the STEM school model: continuous improvement based on data science. Data about the anticipatory learning pilot project will be studied as part of a long-term study but is also used to quickly evaluate how acting out a preview to story problems might help other students like Benjamin.

And Benjamin? “He’s becoming more confident,” Pierce says. “He’s beginning to navigate his space like he belongs here.”