Science and Math Institute (SAMI)


​​​​​​Set in the wilderness of Point Defiance Park, students here learn by doing

When drawing a clouded leopard, Alana Gonczar learned to keep her hand moving quickly. 

The Himalayan mountain cat may prowl slowly at times, but drawing even a meandering mammal requires constant sketches. Good thing the cat lives just steps from Alana’s classroom in Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

​SAMI students return to the classroom after observing zoo animals.
Hands-on learning defines the Science and Math Institute, situated since 2009 within Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park. Students access many of the park’s amenities including its beaches, woods, the zoo and Fort Nisqually as classroom laboratories. 


SAMI’s rigorous classwork emphasizes science and math, although students also take core classes in the humanities and arts. Courses are often interdisciplinary and taught at an honors or AP level. The approach pays off: Graduation rates hover above 97 percent and students score highly on state assessments. 

“A lot of our coursework is project-based, and students spend their days working instead of sitting,” SAMI co-director Kristen Tinder said. 

Experience-based learning 

Immersion learning launches SAMI students across the 706-acre park. In outdoor education, teacher Lauren Anderson leads freshmen on a pop-quiz walk through the woods. Every time she stops at a tree, students must identify the species’ scientific and common names.

In English class, juniors traverse the aquarium on a literary sketch scavenger hunt. At a fish tank window students write a descriptive passage focusing on visual imagery. Stop two requires describing what it feels like to touch sting rays at the petting station. 

​Sean Holland uses zoo resources for class.
​ ​​​​​​​​“I’ve always had a fascination with animals,” student Ben Breatin said after finishing his writing assignment. “Taking classes at the zoo is amazing.” 

Neuroscience and ornithology classes rank at the top of Ben’s favorite class list, especially after he dissected a quail brain in class. “It didn’t smell very friendly though,” he said. 

For Alana, sketching clouded leopards, sloths, owls and tarantulas in her Animal Life Drawing class sparks career ideas – she’s currently weighing scientific illustrator or biologist.  

SAMI students complete internships and intensive mini-terms that allow them to dive deep into subjects such as robotics or modern architecture. Students may also take courses at SAMI’s counterpart, the School of the Arts.

Welcoming environment 

Beyond the impressive academic offerings, students say SAMI’s unique school community plays an equally important role in their experience. 

The school fosters close relationships through small mentor groups pairing teachers with students. Teachers work individually with students to help set goals, find internships, maintain grades and stay on track to graduate. 

“The mentor groups form a family,” said Liz Minks, a member of SAMI’s leadership team. 

Expansive education center 

SAMI students will soon enjoy a state-of-the-art education center. Tacoma Public Schools, in partnership with MetroParks and Point Defiance Zoo, plans to start construction in 2015 on a 30,000-square-foot education center inside the Zoo property. 

The center will host programming for SAMI and the zoo, with 5,000 square feet of the building dedicated to Zoo administration and operations. ​​​​​​​​​​

Get to know SAMi

​Innovation Model: SAMI offers students an innovative and rigorous education that is focused on science and math. The curriculum is integrated; courses are ad​vanced and often mixed age. The school uses its unique setting – Point Defiance Park – to enhance the learning experience. Students can also take advantage of courses from SAMI’s counterpart, the School of the Arts.

Students best served: To attend SAMI students must fill out an application. Kristin Tinder says an interest in math and science is necessary, though students don’t necessarily need to have excelled in these subjects in middle school.

Grades: Ninth through Twelfth

Students: 400

School report card

School Web site

Special clubs and after-school programs: Robotics • Key Club • Student Government • Gay Straight Alliance • Yearbook • Envirothon • Green Team

Related links:

SAMI brochure

SAMI Adventure video​​

Designated Innovative School - Washington State