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‘In Sync with Nature’: Hawkins STEMM Academy’s Approach

‘In Sync with Nature’: Hawkins STEMM Academy’s Approach

In May, the Ohio STEM Committee approved six schools in the state for five years of STEM school designation.

Hawkins STEMM Academy of Toledo Public Schools earned designation for the first time. The designation shows that Hawkins has exhibited the qualities of STEM education outlined by the Ohio Quality Model for STEM and STEAM Schools.

Principal Aufwiedersehen Winfield

The Ohio STEM Learning Network reached out to Hawkins for the school’s view on designation, their “superpower in STEM,” and advice for other schools. Prinicipal Aufwiedersehen Winfield and leadership team collaborated on a set of answers. Cynthia Madanski, instructional coach also provided her perspective on several key questions. Their answers also include content from teacher Carey Bryant and Monica Cornell, the intervention specialist who co-led Hawkins’ Smithsonian Science Education Center’s Zero Barriers effort. 

Read on for an in-depth look at Hawkins, its mission, its community partners and the process involved in achieving designation:

Q: Tell us about your school, its students, its mission and the community that it serves.

Principal Winfield: Hawkins STEMM Academy promotes high academic achievement through project-based learning, which ignites students to become innovative thinkers and problem solvers. We are part of Toledo Public Schools, our doors are open to all learners. 

We use a student-directed process to creatively solve real-world problems while integrating science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Located next to Toledo Botanical Garden Metropark, our vision is a welcoming, flexible, nurturing atmosphere emphasizing students as engaged participants in the natural world. We are “In Sync with Nature.” Our learning is rooted in stewardship, inclusion, curiosity, perseverance and community.

Cynthia Madanski, instructional coach

Cynthia Madanksi: We have a higher percentage of students with disabilities and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) than other schools in Ohio, and we view that as a strength. We believe that STEM education is for all students. 

Q: Why did you seek the statewide STEM School Designation? What was involved in seeking the designation, and, as principal, what did you learn from the process?

Principal Winfield: When I became principal, Hawkins was in the process of seeking STEM designation. As a first-year principal, I learned it was necessary to serve the school by connecting and collaborating STEM with students, parents, teachers and community partners. I strongly feel that STEM education plays a significant role in today’s complex world, drives innovation and creates job opportunities for our youth. 

Q: What do you consider your school’s “superpower” when it comes to STEM education, and what could other schools learn from your successes?

Principal Winfield: Our inclusion of special education and general education classes work hand in hand on PBL and STEM classes. Learning is collaborative and project based in a way where kids are solving real-world problems. 

Another superpower is our location. Our theme is “In Sync with Nature,” and we live and breathe it. We have Toledo Botanical Garden on one corner, a nature and science career based high school on the other and a prairie in between.

Learn about STEM school designation

Ohio law provides a specific pathway for schools to seek and receive designation as a STEM or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) school. Designation recognizes a school as an effective place for STEM or STEAM learning. 

Cynthia Madanski: What a fun question! Our superpower is how students, staff, family members and our community members live our Core Values every day. Our learning is rooted in community, and students are working side by side with architects, engineers, zoologists, business owners, park rangers and experts with a wide variety of careers in our own community.

Our relationship with the community is reciprocal; our students solve problems for our partners. Students use resources inside and outside of our school to solve authentic problems. In addition, students collaborate with members in the community while learning to be accountable for their own actions. 

At Hawkins STEMM, we have freedom to learn outside our school walls with our community partners. Stewardship is a core value that helps us stay “In Sync with Nature.” Our students learn to care for our surroundings and understand the impact we have on the environment. We nurture and show empathy for others. Projects work to promote positive change to conserve, preserve and restore the environment.

As a school community, we are especially proud of our core value of inclusion. We believe everyone can do STEMM. Every single person who walks through our doors is a valued member of the community. We also believe everyone has the ability to find and demonstrate their individual purpose.

To be engaged in STEM education, our students need to have perseverance. We do not give up despite difficulties, failure or barriers. Students learn that our first attempt is not our best attempt, and we embrace problem solving. We embrace the fact that we can succeed and have the strength to remain dedicated to a purpose, idea or task.

Our final core value of curiosity connects everything we do. Our students and educators have a sense of wonder and are aware of the world around us. We have a strong desire to learn new things. Finally, we use critical thinking and our Hawkins STEMM design process to explore things that spark our curiosity. 

These Core Values took significant time and rich discussions to develop. My advice to other schools to learn from this success is to be sure every stakeholder is a part of developing the STEM identity and habits of mind for your school.

We spent a full day together, off site, and started by completing a design challenge. Next, groups brainstormed the Core Values we needed to display, and want our students to develop, to be successful at the challenge. Several iterations were shared, and passionate discussions happened to defend and argue values that are appropriate for students in all grade levels.

Definitions for each core value were created, and a graphic was approved for a schoolwide poster. Our core values posters were shared with all of our community partners and are posted in every classroom. Taking the time to create our Core Values was a defining moment for our school and was a turning point in our STEM journey.

Great Maker Race

Core Values and Design Process were shared with families, and they worked to design, build, and race a car down a track together.

Q: Tell us about your school’s collaboration with the Ohio Department of Education and the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s Zero Barriers in STEM Education: Accessibility and Inclusion Program. What does it involve, and what have been the benefits/fruits of this collaboration.

Principal Winfield: The Smithsonian Science Education Center’s Zero Barriers in STEM Education: Accessibility and Inclusion Program is an initiative focused on increasing the prevalence of accessible and inclusive practices in STEM education and school culture for students with disabilities. 

The program convenes teams of educators representing schools, districts and state education agencies across the U.S. for an education summit, to develop logic models that focus on a problem of practice related to accessible and inclusive STEM programs and school culture within their context for students with disabilities. The program also provides midyear professional development to educators selected for the program.

Cynthia Madanski: When Hawkins STEMM went through the designation process the first time, we were on our way to being a school worthy of OSLN STEM designation, but we still had growth to do and missed the mark in some areas. 

However, one strength that was noticed was our commitment to our students with special needs being involved in PBL, inquiry and design thinking. Janna Mino from the Ohio Department of Education invited me and Monica Cornell, a primary CCSE teacher, to be part of the Zero Barriers project. This began in the summer of 2022 at the Smithsonian Science Education Center in Washington, D.C.

Janna led the team that included our representation from Hawkins STEMM and educators from Herbert Mills STEAM Elementary School in Reynoldsburg. We decided to focus our efforts to develop a plan of action and logic model to revise the Ohio Quality Model for STEM and STEAM Schools to include a section with best practices for students with disabilities. The elevator pitch for our project is as follows:

Picture in your mind an engineer, a biologist, a computer programmer. Did that person use a wheelchair, have a learning disability, or communicate through ASL? I didn’t think so. That is because there is a lack of representation of individuals with disabilities in these STEM fields. As Ohio’s STEM workforce continues to grow, we must address these gaps through inclusive STEM practices in our K-12 schools to build a pipeline of highly qualified STEM-prepared graduates that better reflects the diversity of our state, especially individuals with disabilities.  

We have a solution. The Ohio Department of Education published a framework called the Quality Model for STEM and STEAM Schools, which provides guidance in STEM education practices, but it is lacking in resources for students with disabilities. We want to update our framework with specific strategies to make STEM education more accessible and inclusive. Two schools will pilot these strategies and collect data, which will be shared with educators across the state.  

We think the implementation of these strategies in K-12 schools will lead to an increase in representation of individuals with disabilities in the Ohio STEM workforce in the next decade. 

Work on this project throughout the school year has included finding resources and support. We have been collecting data and brought on more teachers to have a broader reach, including our own Kristin Royer, primary CCSER. The Zero Barriers team presented at the Ohio STEM Innovation Summit and shared the work done to this point. 

Participants were invited to join our work and be informed about the progress. This year, we will continue with action research to determine the success of different strategies and work to publish changes to the Quality Model for STEM and STEAM Schools.  

This collaboration has benefited our own students with disabilities and will help teachers across the state to have resources to better support students. 


Students reared monarchs from egg, worked through PBL units on conservation efforts. Garden Club grows produce for the community.

Q: How does your school utilize the nearby Toledo Botanical Garden Metropark in your effort to be “In Sync with Nature”? Are there other such community assets that your students benefit from as a group?

Principal Winfield: We understand that we are truly a unique community in being situated next to the Toledo Botanical Garden. We have direct access to their grounds. When staff members plans their PBL, they work directly with the garden’s staff to bring in experts to use as a resource to help the students. 

Additionally, TBG staff has had real world problems they have used to gather information and research for them, which turns into a PBL for students to work directly with the Metropark staff. Staff members also use the Metroparks as a workspace to allow students to read, create art, run science experiments, and so much more! It is truly an extension of our school grounds.  

We also benefit from SSOE Group, architects and engineers.

Cynthia Madanski: Each teacher uses a blanket permission slip so that every day can be a field trip to Toledo Botanical Garden (TBG). The space is an extension of our campus, and we have a connecting gate and walking path that leads to the garden from our school. This unique and wonderful asset to our school was a big reason we adopted a theme “In Sync with Nature.”

I am aware and grateful that we are so lucky to live and work in an urban district and have such an incredible natural resource right in our backyard. TBG offers programming to our students, including tree climbing, orienteering, fishing, nature hikes and much more. 

A “walking school bus” leaves TBG daily to walk to school, and guides walk with students and point out different plants and animals, including migratory birds that come right through our area. A creek and pond at TBG are ideal locations to study water quality, and our students present their findings yearly to an audience of TBG staff members, who then can mitigate issues found.

An artist village at TBG includes Unruly Arts, a studio that provides a nurturing, inclusive and joyful environment that supports the artistic visions and needs of people with disabilities. Our students have been able to have a public exhibition with Unruly Arts during the Heralding the Holidays event. We are so lucky to have a rich partnership with TBG; a simple, everyday lesson such as reading a passage from a novel can be so much more engaging out in the park!

To maintain lines of communication and appreciation, we host monthly Community STEM Connections meetings with all of our community partners. SSOE Group, TBG, Toledo Metroparks, Toledo Zoo, Epworth Church, Safe Routes to School, Reynolds Corner Rotary Club, our school district’s Natural Science Technology Center and district leadership are all invited to hear about events and projects our teachers are engaging in and to share special events and opportunities they have coming up. 

These monthly meetings are a celebration of STEM education, and it always amazes me the great ideas that arise from conversations among all partners who are committed to coming together for our children. 

Community partner

Engineers from SSOE Group working with students.

Q: The second “M” in “STEMM Academy” stands for “Medicine.” How does your curriculum and other aspects of your educational efforts reflect that and why?

Cynthia Madanski: Toledo Public Schools has four K-8 STEMM Academies. The extra “M” for “Medicine” is in honor of ProMedica health-care system, which initially sponsored the Catalyst Lab model at each school. Teachers apply to be in the Catalyst Lab for one quarter of the school year. In this space, there is flexible seating and different technology to try out, and intensive work with the instructional coach on professional goals. 

Toledo Public Schools also has a new Pre-Medical and Health Science Academy as a high school option. ProMedica works with this school, and our students gain exposure and experience touring the campus and learning about career paths. Bowling Green State University also offers our eighth-grade students a field trip experience each year to learn about the different paths in the health fields they offer.

Metroparks programming

Q: What advice would you give other educators interested in implementing a STEM-based curriculum or in seeking the state’s STEM School Designation?

Principal Winfield: STEM education provides learners unique opportunities to practice problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and more. They are getting a solid foundation with real-world applications. It increases their curiosity and prepares them for high demanding careers. 

Cynthia Madanski: A big piece of advice I would offer to schools and individual educators is to go through the application and site visit process for OSLN STEM School Designation even if you are not quite there. 

The feedback and experience working through the SlideRoom application was invaluable to help connect all of the initiatives that were going on in our building. The rubric can serve as a compass for where you are heading to provide an engaging STEM education to all students, while leaving enough flexibility to make your own school unique and individualized. 

Being a part of the Fostering STEM Institute was instrumental in helping support educators in my building implement a STEM-based curriculum. This year-long institute was packed full of resources and pedagogy, and I can’t recommend it enough, whether you are an experienced STEM educator or new to STEM.

Networking is crucial in STEM; you can’t do this work in a silo or with your classroom door closed to the world. Solving authentic real-world problems requires students and teachers to be out in the real world!

Project Prairie

Students working to install our new prairie

The post ‘In Sync with Nature’: Hawkins STEMM Academy’s Approach appeared first on Ohio STEM Learning Network.


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