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five students at a boot with information about their STEAM project

STEAM has an extensive history at Emma Willard School. Combining the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, STEAM is a contemporary version of STEM education. At Emma Willard School, STEAM is entirely experiential and has influenced quite a few programs during its tenure on campus.

STEM at Emma was first created as an internship program for eleventh and twelfth graders at the New York State Museum in Albany, NY. Students had the opportunity to work with scientists on authentic research projects, often working side-by-side with graduate students. The program quickly became popular and expanded to many regional institutions, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University at Albany, the Wadsworth Center, and other research-based organizations. During the height of the program, twenty students were working with world-class professionals on independent projects for one school year, and they shared professional posters with the entire school community at the end. Over the years, many students had the remarkable opportunity to publish the results of their work in peer-reviewed journals. When The Sanctuary for Independent Media joined the group of collaborators, the “A” was added to STEAM.

As interest grew in the STEAM Research program, as it was called, the school looked for ways to develop a path for students to explore similar topics and activities in earlier grades. The next addition to the larger program was STEAM 10, which was designed for tenth graders. Situated on campus, and with more structure, STEAM 10 was created to allow students to independently explore a cross-disciplinary project, working in teams, and in collaboration with faculty. As it is run now, STEAM 10 runs for a school year, is a scheduled class, and ends with the creation of professional posters which hang in a Hunter Science Building hallway. This year there are two sections of this course.

Screenshot of Meli N.'s first co-authored published work

Emma Willard Student's first co-authored published work: "The Impact of Multidisciplinary Conferences on Healthcare Utilization in Chronic Pain Patients"


The next step in the evolution of STEAM was to create an opportunity for ninth graders to participate, and STEAM 9 was born. Offered in the spring semester, ninth graders may join this scheduled class, and they also make posters during the final phase of the program. The curriculum is divided into two sections: modules and extension projects. STEAM 9 students first work through a few modules that emphasize the possibility of STEAM investigations. During the second half of the semester, students join teams that each take one of the modules and extend it into an independent project. These projects are then summarized with posters, which hang alongside the STEAM 10 posters in Hunter. Together these make for a fascinating display for future students and visitors.


Screenshot of the website featuring a vulture flying and a drawing of campus.

The Vultures of Emma Willard website, a STEAM project involving research and website development for the community. 


The next development in this experiential learning program was the creation of Signature, Emma Willard School’s special version of a capstone program. As students continued working at regional institutions on inspirational STEAM Research projects, the community thought about ways to make this kind of opportunity more inclusive and available. The decision was made to pilot a capstone program open to eleventh and twelfth graders, in which students could explore their individual interests in collaboration with teachers for a year, and it ended with presentations in front of the entire school community. Since its inauguration, Signature has steadily grown into a very successful class that now enrolls eighty students, and addresses a wonderful diversity of topics originating from the students. Signature emphasizes in equal measure both the accomplishments of its students as well as the experiences that they have during the journey.

The name Signature came from the idea of the maturation of a person’s hand-written signature. As one matures, a person’s signature changes accordingly, until it represents the person who inks it on a page. In a program that values outcomes as much as experiences, and has become a special opportunity on campus, Signature is a very apt title.

five students at a boot with information about their STEAM project

STEAM 10 booth on invasive fish of New York State at the Sustainability Fair


STEAM Research still exists as a component of Signature. Each year we have students working with local researchers, just like has been happening for over a decade. In keeping with the personalized aspect of Signature, students seek out people to work with, making the experience even more meaningful.

This piece was written by Experiential Learning Department Chair and Science Instructor Jon Calos.


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