Leaders in education from across the nation are gathered in Pensacola Beach to attend the Third National STEM Symposium, hosted by the Santa Rosa County School District and Discovery Education.

PENSACOLA BEACH — The leaders from the Santa Rosa County School District took the stage in a conference room at the Pensacola Beach Hilton Monday afternoon with a story to tell.


The audience — approximately 75 leaders in education from all over the United States — were here exactly for this.


Because, they hoped, it could change their school districts like it's changed Santa Rosa's — part of the school district teaming with Discovery Education to host the Third National STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Symposium.


The symposium takes place over three days and was capped Tuesday with a visit by the assembled educators to Santa Rosa County schools to see the implementation of its world-class Innovate! STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Education Program, which the district began to implement over five years ago.


"STEAM isn't a widget, it's not a theme," said Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick. "It's a culture change. The desire was to change the way we taught and the manner in which the children learned.


"That starts when you hire amazing people who are willing to re-invent themselves and, in turn, re-invent the school district. We'd become very myopic with the schools and the school district with how we taught."


Wyrosdick was perhaps the biggest selling point on the success of STEAM. When he was initially approached five years ago, he was hesitant to change things up.


"I did the thing that a lot of leaders in education do," Wyrosdick said. "I told them I wanted more information ... I didn't want it just to be another 'thing' or just another part of the bureaucracy."


One big part of STEAM — and one of its more practical applications — is identifying careers within the community and helping implement educational practices that might help students find professional opportunities within said fields.


"The idea of changing a culture, you already know how tough that will be," said Santa Rosa Assistant Superintendent Bill Emerson. "But we were tired of things just being passed down, the requirements and mandates of what he had to do. We felt like the process should be something people want to do, not a mandate. We wanted to innovate.


"We started with elementary schools and it really took off. We would have STEAM nights at schools and the response was overwhelming. It was great."


Another part of STEAM that is easy to point to as being crucial to its success — and a big reason for its implementation — is that it creates a baseline of education that can change lives not based on opportunity or privilege.


"The response from teachers, kids and parents was more than we ever thought it would be," said Karen Barber, the district’s Director of Federal Programs. "We didn't know it was going to move as fast as we did ... we knew we were going to take risks as a school district, but we also knew it was going to get us back to teaching and learning and the joy that goes with that.


"And to us, the biggest thing, was that every kid, regardless of ZIP code, gets a quality education. That was STEAM for us. Every kid gets the opportunity."