Students have been selected; course load is in place - iStem students will start classes in September.

News 100 blueBy Pepper Parr

March 27th, 2019



It all started more than two years ago. It was a comment from a trustee who hadn’t managed to be re-elected in 2018 that caught the attention of the Halton District Board of Education (HDSB).

At the time the HDSB had determined that it needed to close some of the high schools in Burlington and the battle between the high schools as to which would actually be closed was fierce.

When the decision to close Central High School was reversed those at Aldershot High School were concerned that their school might have to close.

Richelle  Papin, who at the time was the trustee for ward 4, suggested that Aldershot might be a good place for an “incubator” school or a school that would focus on a specific subject area –perhaps a school with a strong focus on sports or the arts.

Papin wasn’t very specific but the mention was enough of a spark to get the HDSB thinking – and think they did.

They researched, asked a lot of people a lot of questions and met with anyone who had something to say about developing new approaches to the way high schools offered curriculum programs.

Turned out that there were a lot of people with something to say.

M Benz event istem poster

At a hands-on meeting of stakeholders everyone got a chance to explain what they were expecting.

After a lot of stakeholder meetings and conversations with people who were taking a long, deep, serious look at how high school students were being prepared for university and the work world HDSB decided that STEM – Science Technology, Engineering and Technology was a direction they wanted to go in –then they added an i to coin the phrase iStem which was what would be offered at Aldershot high school.

The standard high school offering would continue – the iStem would be an additional layer that would earn the graduates a certificate which is expected for entry into most universities in the country and position the holders of the certificate with great job opportunities.

iStem students don’t get a pass on the traditional class requirements. To get an iStem certificate they have to complete:

Gr. 9 STEM Math
Gr. 9 STEM Science
Gr. 9 STEM Geography
Gr. 9 STEM Technological Design

Along with

Gr. 9 English
Gr. 9 French
Gr. 9 Arts (Elective)
Gr. 9 Physical Education

Blackwell + Tuffen as a team

Superintendents Terri Blackwell and Gord Truffen explaining the justification to the Board of trustees who gave the go ahead for the idea.

In the early days the Board thinkers were cautious- they thought they might attract 35 – maybe 50 students.

As the staff and the teachers get closer to the September 2019 opening they find themselves looking at 124 students enrolled in the program – far more than anyone was even prepared to even dream of two years ago.

The Superintendent behind the new offering, Terri Blackwell turned over every stone she saw and asked questions.

Getting the word out to the community was the task that teacher Kerry Sager was given. Sagar is one of these people who is best described as a “keener”. Once she has her eyes focused on the objective she is tougher than a dog with a bone.

She used every medium she could find to get the word out – she spent part of a day putting 1000 flyers on the seats of GO trains to get the word out.

And the word did get out.

Sager found that the parents of the students who applied wanted to be in on the process as much as possible – they see this different approach to educating high school students as a path to success for their children.

Sagar behind screen

Lead teacher for the iStem classes at Aldershot High School Kelly Sagar

Deciding who would be a good fit for the program was not a process that went looking for the “best and the brightest”.

“There is nothing elitist about the iStem program” said Sagar. “What we were looking for were students who had ideas; things they wanted to get done and with the capacity to look at problems differently.

One of the problems the students are going to be asked to take on is called: Ship the chip – the exercise is to put a potato chip in a container and ship it to themselves and have it arrive in perfect condition.

In each of the grade levels the focus will be on what is being called a “tool kit” that will serve as a guide.

Year 1 – Engineer’s Toolkit In grade 9, students explore and develop innovation skills related to engineering design and design thinking. Engineers use their creativity and analytical skills to invent, design, and build things that matter. The design thinking process brings the lens of human-centred design to solving real world problems. These design processes will enable students to further develop mindsets that include creativity, critical thinking, strategy, and project management.

Blackwell and Miller at itsem Nov 2018

The night that parents with their student children showed up for a briefing on the iStem program stunned board staff. The crowd filled the auditorium, then the cafeteria and then the library. Superintendent Blackwell and Director of Education Stuart Miller were surprised and delighted – they had taken a chance – and it paid off.

The program at Aldershot will start with the 124 grade nine students who will progress right through to high school leaving. The difference is that they will have taken an approach to learning that is different than the standard curriculum. In 2020 there will be a new grade nine until the school has a full complement of high school classes.

These students are not top level marks types. There is at least one with a learning disability.

The selection was based on the answers the students gave to the questions they were asked on why they wanted to be an iStem student.

“The answers we got from those that were selected were awesome” said Sagar.

The space in the high school is being renovated to meet the different needs of an iStem teaching environment that begins in September.

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4 comments to Students have been selected; course load is in place – iStem students will start classes in September.

  • Terri Blackwell

    Phillip, we have definitely researched the “iSTEM” program (Invigorating Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) from Australia, as well as many others provincially, nationally and internationally once the decision was made, in consultation with stakeholders, to focus on a STEM magnet program.

    The HDSB I-STEM (Innovation through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has some similarities (e.g., STEM skills developed through integrated learning and a focus on 21st century learning skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, etc.). The learning opportunities and content for students will look different. We are working closely with our post-secondary, industry and community partners to develop our I-STEM program and will be sharing what this looks like as we go @ISTEM_HDSB. We are excited!

    • Phillip Wooster

      Perhaps you can clarify in which specific ways the learning opportunities and content will differ from those in Australia, the UK, and the USA. An Aussie engineer that I met who is familiar with your introduction at Aldershot and the program down under felt the programs were one and the same.

  • Phillip Wooster

    Sorry Pepper but you need to research this topic more thoroughly. The Halton District School Board didn’t create this program, nor did they originate the term “I-Stem”. They ADOPTED a program which had run in Australia, the United States and in the UK since 2012. While this is an excellent program and I’m glad the HDSB is running it, we do need to see how effectively this is implemented and just how challenging the HDSB will permit it to be.

    • Phillip Wooster

      I should clarify the timing of the program in Australia–developed in 2012 and implemented in 2013 with subsequent adoption in the UK and the USA in 2015/6.

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