Jul 22, 2013

What is a STEM school? Now and in the future

Photo by Chris, via rgbstock.com

A colleague forwarded this question to me:
If a child is in a program rich in science, math,  is using technology, is interacting with materials, is building/creating with lots of different things, what is the difference between that and being in a STEM classroom?
This is a great question! Everyone in the STEM arena, I'm sure will have his or her own answer, from his or her own perspective (or agenda). Here's mine:

Before the "STEM" acronym became vogue, there were "Science and Technology" or "Science and Math" schools. Engineering wasn't that much in the mix. Then, the boom of STEM schools started. At first, schools that were doing good science and math set the bar as hands-on math and inquiry-based science, with some discussion of engineering as "applied" -- perhaps a project. Technology was equated to computers, mainly the activity of using them not programming them or using them to do calculations. The efforts were good, though incomplete.

Then around 2009, declaring oneself a STEM school became trendy. Teachers who finished my professional development courses (18-months or more for 12 graduate credits of education courses complete with engineering projects ~ See: Step 1: Help Them Believe) came to me and demanded to know what made a "STEM school". After all, they had just put their heart and soul, egos and creativity to the test (and were all the better for it), but it seemed that other schools just did their traditional science and math, required an art project and called it engineering, and used SmartBoards. What really made a school a "STEM school"?

Today, we have a multitude of research available on the relationship of interest and proficiency, the need to integrate not "add on" more topics to teach, and the importance of sensorial, context-driven teaching. As a result, the bar for a STEM school has been set higher in the following way at the elementary school level:

  • Hands-on and active development of concepts and skills needed to succeed in STEM: from science methods to engineering design to experience with tools and technology to do both to logical problem solving
  • Development of foundation traits/dispositions needed to succeed in STEM (such as spatial skills, creativity, persistence See: Engineering for the Uninitiated)
  • Engineering projects which are authentic: with measurable specifications, constraints in time or materials, and requiring an iterative creative process
  • Technology as being more than just computers: it includes understanding and experience with materials, manufacturing methods to cut, fasten, and form materials, power technologies such from hand- to spring- to battery- or electrically-powered devices as well as foundations in understanding how the computer works: from basic ideas of logic to programming simple formula calculations with spreadsheets or programming languages
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics lessons being integrated in grades with unifying projects or investigations (See: How Does STEM Look in the Classroom?)
  • STEM complementing other content areas such as Reading, Social Science, History, and Art... even Physical Education
In secondary school, STEM schools today should
  • Require students to connect knowledge learned in other content areas (e.g. using history for insights about designs, using literacy skills in communicating with design team or when presenting final products/findings)
  • Develop higher level skills (tools related to wood and metal, not just paper or cloth)
  • Require more accurate prediction using mathematics to minimize material costs and iterations
  • Engineer on a larger scale either in terms of size, complexity, or thinking about processes as well as products
  • Be transparent in how what is learned relates to career options today and ones that will most likely exist in the future
  • Develop foundations in good communication and team skills
While that seems like a tall order, I see teachers in STEM schools today working diligently towards them while trying to meet standardized test requirements. This rapid progress made me wonder what the future STEM schools would look like. That is, what would our students be learning? What would a well-educated population be able to do, whether or not individuals went into a STEM career?

My bet: There really won't be STEM-only schools. In fact, I believe that there will be "STEM+" schools; I am already seeing schools experiment with these ideas today, though they are in the initial stages. Elementary schools would concentrate on creating broad life experiences that are so hard to come by in today's largely urban, test score-oriented world. They would, in a sense, formalize what children did in the past that helped them develop STEM skills: The schools would be
  • STEM and the Environment where children would have lessons connected to outside experiences
  • STEM and Sports where athletic children would be able to analyze the sports they love using STEM
  • STEM and Performing Arts where theater, dance, and musical productions would be integrated into the STEM lessons
  • STEM and Fine Arts where art, sculpture, photography, ceramics, woodworking, jewelry making, 2-D and 3-D design would be integrated with STEM lessons
  • and even STEM and Stories (or Literature, to be more sophisticated) which is actually a pet project of mine these days (See: Coming Around Again--This Time With STEM)
High (and even middle) schools would be more "taste of" career experiences, putting the STEM ideas into more vocational context: 
  • STEM and Aviation where students would learn to glide and/or fly at local airports, tying STEM lessons with the experience, getting their license as early as 14 years of age
  • STEM and Medicine where students would learn not only about health professions (and the STEM related to those) but also medical research and medical device development
  • STEM and Athletics which would have students learn about performance technology as well as injury treatments
  • STEM and Entrepreneurship which would show students how STEM is at the root of many new companies and industries
  • STEM and Communication where students would learn the STEM behind communication technologies such as radio, lasers, and computers
  • STEM and Public Policy where civic minded students would learn and apply knowledge to larger governmental issues
  • ... the list goes on
Sorry, this vision obviously has been influenced by my liberal arts background. Since I see the value of STEM everywhere, and value all fields and careers, it is no wonder that I see these multiple areas intersecting rather than isolating. Of course, wasn't treating each area as a completely separate entity the problem we had before?

Want to learn more about STEM+ schools or STEM in general? Contact Yvonne at Engineer's Playground.

Jul 7, 2013

Coming Around Again--This Time With STEM

Now that my stint at St. Kate's National Center for STEM Elementary Education is over, I'm able to focus on the doing rather than the administrating again! .

Every 4th of July, I like to watch 1776 to remember the circumstances regarding the birth of our nation. Yes, I know it is a dramatized version of the events (with some artistic license since I'm pretty sure that all members of the Continental Congress were not great singers and dancers); however, I am always amazed at how the desire to define a new nation pulled together folks from different classes, perspectives, and walks of life.

An interviewer recently reminded me that we are at a similar juncture today regarding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). So many are united on the importance of STEM for the people in the United States.They also seem to agree that in order to be competitive and "keep jobs in America," solutions need to tap into the potential of all our individuals whether they come from rural or urban areas, from working class or academic families, or from the myriad of races, genders,and ethnicity.

In true American fashion, the progress has been rather federalist in nature: solutions are seasoned by local, state, or national perspectives. The good news is that government is working with industry and small business, as well as communities. With all hands on deck, there is a good chance of success.

If my personal experiences and endeavors are any indication, we seem to be deepening the general endeavor to create an educated citizenry, but this time, we are aiming for a STEM-educated one to complement the literacy and civic one that was the aim of our educational forerunners. I intend to provide affordable and useful resources as my contribution to the effort.

Pattern finding with shapes is
a part of mathematical development
Republican Motherhood was the movement in the very early days of the United States to ensure that girls were educated as needed to raise future (male) citizens. Having them educated in more heady topics such as literature, the arts, and mathematics (compared to manners and deportment) would ensure that they could prepare their children to be the leaders of the republic's future.

The idea that a child's education starts early is a key part of today's STEM movement as evidenced by the National Center for STEM Elementary Education and organizations like Talent Management Alliance (TMA) who asked me to present "Opening the Pipeline: The Impact of Starting STEM Early" in their August summit to address what can be done even before children enter kindergarten.
  • Early STEM is a webinar series that I will be releasing soon for early childhood teachers and proactive parents who want to develop the traits that create the foundation of STEM professionals. The good news? Most good early educational practices already do this. The webinars will point out the STEM-aspects of these and give tips on how to provide more growth opportunities.

Horace Mann was Massachusetts Secretary of Education in the 1800's and led educational reform with two main concepts: The "common school" which had all students learn similar topics (thus creating equal access to them) and the "normal school" which prepared teachers to teach students on those topics.

Today, many STEM innovators, including advisers to the White House, realize the power of preparing teachers in STEM. The impact of a single teacher teaching STEM well can extend to many more children throughout that person's career. Because teachers are the front line for identifying and preparing STEM potential, I decided my keynote speech for the Minnesota Independent School Forum (MISF)'s STEM Teacher Seminar would be "Tips for STEM Talent Scouts Like You," using the 8 traits outlined in my book, Engineering for the Uninitiated. Dedicated teachers get the importance of STEM; now they need practical tools to do what they do so well.
  • Besides creating a revised edition of Engineering for the Uninitiated and continuing this blog, I will be coming out with the STEM. Literature. Life. curriculum. Inspired by my literacy colleagues and the interest in GoldiBlox, I am finally putting together STEM lessons that relate to popular classic and modern books used in schools today. STEM is not an add on, but is a part of real life (see No broccoli in my brownies, please). Little House in the Big Woods will be the flagship classic book, and the first modern one will likely be The Hunger Games. Brief lesson outlines aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be provided along with webinars explaining more of the lesson in detail. 

The creation of land-grant universities in the latter part of the 19th century was a way that labor unions felt they could better themselves while leveraging their hands-on skills. As a result, these public universities specialized in "the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering" as opposed to the more abstract curriculum of the liberal arts institutions. In a way, this was the start of the STEM-specific education movement.

And the job is not yet done, even at the college level. A recent survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace showed that while Science/Technology employers greatly valued public universities, they felt the job applicants were "lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving." With over half of all employers saying they couldn't find qualified candidates for the openings, a change is needed in the land-grant institutions (at least) to provide the practical education needed to make all its students more employable.

In STEM, I have found that well-designed projects are good ways to develop skills like project management, team skills, or communication with non-technical audiences; however, they also need to be taught. Not teaching them but creating a situation that requires them sets students up for frustration or even failure, with only those who developed them elsewhere to succeed.

I have seen this frustration in students' faces when they muster the courage in conventions like the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) or the Grace Hopper Convention (GHC)to ask the panel of successful VPs how to manage difficult team situations. I also saw it in future employers when I participated in a post-semester Senior Design meeting.
  • Based on my years of teaching computer science and engineering students projects and the requisite soft skills, the webinar series, Expected But Not Taught: Soft Skills in a STEM World, will be for proactive students who want to develop these for both their sanity and their success. The first webinar will be "Team Triage: What to Do When You Sense Disaster" and will move to more positive topics like "Project Management Basics", "Preparing a 6-minute Update" and "Creating Your Job Portfolio." Students I taught who are now in both start ups and Fortune 500 companies indicated that these skills were what got them their jobs, despite the tight job market.

With the retro feel of these initiatives, some may feel jaded, believing that going down the same road in our educational system. I like to think of the work as I do engineering projects: We are just iterating to a better solution.

Watch this blog for notifications on when these resources become available.