At one of the work stations in Courtney Miller’s classroom at Slavens ECE-8 School on Thursday morning, two third graders argued over the design of a tower they were supposed to be building.

“You can’t just say the way we’re going to do it and make me do it,” Finn told his partner, Roman. Rather than work together, each boy was building his own. Finn’s design was visibly less sturdy, a fact which his partner attempted to demonstrate by pushing on it.

“You’re not just going to take mine apart,” Finn objected. In a quiet moment, Roman said he’d heard from other students that Finn was difficult to work with, a feeling Finn seemed to share about his partner. Their bickering continued until the bell rang.

The generation of this kind of mutual frustration is all part of the learning process in Miller’s STEM classroom, which is in its second year. STEM, an acronym which refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics-focused education, is getting increasing attention from state and national leaders for the potential to prepare students for a tech-centric future. But it has also drawn attention as part of a wider initiative for student-directed learning, which is what Miller has taken as the primary focus of her classroom.

That’s at least in part a result of her own skill set.

“My principal would tell you I’m not the most tech-savvy person he’s ever met,” said Miller. Instead, she says she brings a willingness to learn new things, to struggle — and to tolerate a little chaos. “[Student-driven learning] has to be messy at some points. You have to comfortable with mess.”

Her noisy classroom is full of students working largely independent of Miller in order to solve technological dilemmas ranging from programming a robot to making a design to print out with a 3D printer. As for her instruction, it’s mostly focused on making sure the classroom is a space where students are constantly challenged.

One of the fundamentals she has created in each class is pairs of students who challenge each other. Take, for example, Finn and Roman.

“I put them together because of their own differences,” she said. Both boys are headstrong. But Finn, she has observed, is more willing to experiment but bad at communicating his ideas. Roman tends to stick with the familiar but is much better at communicating.

“It could be a really great collaboration,” Miller said.

And they’ve already made progress. For example, she pushed them to find a way to combine their towers, despite their disagreements. By the end of class, Finn had found a way to combine his with Roman’s, if reluctantly.

But it’s not just about students’ differences. In the following class, she put two students together who always make the same mistake: failing to read directions and plan ahead.

She encourages students to seek each other out first and to research before they come to her for a fix. That pair sought her out multiple times throughout the class when they became frustrated. Each time, she directed them to the directions she’d provided or encouraged to them to do a little research.

“When they’re with someone else, their partner rescues them,” she said. Now that they’re stuck with another person with the same flaw, she hopes they’ll learn to slow down and plan ahead.

Still, even she can become frustrated when students are struggling with each other.

“In my head, I say, ‘Be patient, be patient, be patient,’” said Miller. But she’s had to learn to work differently than teachers do in most other classrooms.

“The problems to solve, they will have to deal with them all the time in here,” she said. That won’t happen if she resolves things for them.

As the morning progressed, the classroom filled up with middle schoolers. The eighth graders were deep into their projects and were beginning to tackle a set of increasingly challenging dilemmas.

One pair of girls were tossing a ballon at aluminum panels taped to desk. The balloon was supposed to activate electrical circuits hooked to the panels that then somehow played piano chords online. The girls hoped to be able to play a simple song like “Jingle Bells” with the complex tool. But when they tried to actually hit a note with the balloon, the circuits wouldn’t fire and no sound came out. They tried a variety of solutions — creating more surface area for the balloons to make contact with, readjusting the circuits, trying different angles of bounce — until their test balloon popped. Unfazed, they replaced it with a tennis ball.

A student tests out her electronic piano, played using a tennis ball.
A student tests out her electronic piano, played using a tennis ball.

For Miller, that sort of problem-solving and resolve is the most important thing students could leave her class with. But getting them to see it that way is its own challenge.

“The stuff in here is fun, but you’re learning big stuff,” said Miller. But for students, especially middle schoolers, she has found that “they equate hard with ‘I took that multiple choice test in social studies and studied all night.’”

She pushes them to pay attention to what they learn in her class so they can use it once they leave school. But her students aren’t the only ones she’s worried about valuing the class. She’ll be evaluated for the first time since launching the STEM lab this fall and she’s not sure how her observer will take her class.

“I did email her and say, ‘This classroom doesn’t look like many others,’” said Miller. “Quite honestly, I’m a little nervous.”

One big difference from other classes: less focus on the new state standards. STEM is often invoked in conjunction with the standards and their national counterparts and Miller recognizes their importance. But she and her principal agreed they wouldn’t be a primary focus in her STEM lab.

“When I was a language arts teachers, I combed them,” said Miller. All the material the students grapple with is tied to their grade-level expectations but that’s as far as she goes with the standards.

That approach is an easy one to take at a school like high-performing, relatively affluent Slavens, Miller acknowledges. But she sees benefits for other schools, too.

“I’ve never been in a place where engagement and excitement is so normal and palpable,” said Miller. “The behaviors that may be problematic in other classrooms just melt away.”

Her main goal is creating “that place that makes students love school.” That, she says, is something all schools could benefit from.