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.