“Everybody in this room understands that our nation’s success depends on strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of discovery and innovation. And that leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students todayâ€”especially in science, technology, engineering, and math.” – President Obama to a gathering of CEOs, scientists, teachers, and others. September 16, 2010
My timing is impeccable! I took the job as STEM education facilitator for six counties in my state just when this STEM thing is getting lots of attention. Even the president has been talking it up.
I’d have to confess though that this attention also worries me. I’ve been to conferences where everything on the vendor floor displays a sticker announcing how — whatever it is — it’s “aligned to the Common Core State Standards and STEM!” I’ve even visited a school that claims it is a “STEM Academy” because (it brags) teachers are mandated to do at least 15 minutes of science EACH DAY!
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s the same approach and attitude that led to technology getting a shady reputation in education. Another “big idea” that is inevitably reduced to a subject or activity — something teachers must spend another chunk of precious class time on. It’s typical education “reform.” Instead, what we need to do is transform. STEM, done right, can help make that happen.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is not a separate subject, and you don’t “do” STEM just by doing any one of its pieces. One of the reasons I took my current position was that I recognized that STEM education has promise in leading us away from each subject only having a singular focus — its own chunk of time in the schedule.
STEM demands that we teach lessons and pursue projects that connect all the subjects represented in its acronym. In this day of narrowed curriculum, that is a very important distinction!
The STEM connection
So how does STEM education differ, and what does it have to do with the special focus of this PLP group blog — connected learning? One way to think about STEM is in the context of that desirable learning strategy we hear about now and again: “taking the time to go deep.” One of the big complaints about NCLB “reform” has been the narrow “surface” learning its accountability mechanisms have produced as a by-product. STEM provides in-depth experiences that students share and can therefore discuss, explain and argue about.
A STEM unit often starts off with a science activity that introduces the concept and leads to the initial research. Besides library books and internet searches, that research should now include communicating with experts. Email, blogs, chats, video-conferencing and other social networking tools and strategies not only add to the learning by involving advisors and collaborators, but teach students how being connected should be part of their learning process.
In addition, a true STEM experience involves the “E” – Engineering. Students should be building something or improving a design. Solving a problem through building and improving involves trials and testing things out. In other words, collecting data, the “M” or math component of STEM. By analyzing performance data, students can make adjustments to their design — quantifying what is really best or most efficient.
Students working in small groups will learn as they note differences in design and efficiency between their creation and those of other groups in the room. And we can up the “connected learning” factor by having them partner with peers beyond the room — students anywhere in the world who are working on the same or a similar activity.
Taking it one step further: what if the groups our students are working in include students in other locations? What if the groups in my class in Nevada have virtual members who are in British Columbia or Scotland or India?
Now the challenge of STEM collaboration takes on new dimensions … staying in communication across time zones, being responsible for getting your part done, being able to share your learning in a way that is understandable to students in different contexts and cultures. Will connected teams use blogs? wikis? email? Google groups? Dropbox? Live meeting spaces? Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of various combinations of virtual partnering is all part of the learning.
Now imagine connecting with an expert in the field you are working in… asking questions, sharing insights, getting tips on design, learning from their experience. All this connectedness can be a huge asset; done well, it can become a vital and very “sticky” part of the learning.
Expanding STEM across the curriculum
As the overall project continues, the potential connections afford many opportunities to vocalize and clarify thinking, as well as the motivation to do quality work because you have authentic audiences. The writing and communications work should also be deep. This can involve creative writing and sharing experiences through stories, poetry, music, video, art of various kinds (STEAM!), and more.
Blending STEM with “connected classroom” strategies is a powerful learning model — a highly active learning model. For this to work well in schools, however, we have to have innovative thinking, teacher autonomy and flexibility in scheduling. These essential components of “going deep” with teaching and learning have been eroded away in the last decade. If if we are truly going to integrate and embrace STEM education and innovation, we will have to revive them.
The possibilities of authentic, globally connected STEM projects that flatten curriculum walls, engage students through curiosity, and ignite their natural desire to solve challenging, worthwhile problems is why I am personally promoting the STEM concept. I see it as a way to bypass the most misguided aspects of current “reform” movements while promoting — even requiring — critical and creative thinking and true innovation.
Latest posts by Brian Crosby (see all)
- Sharing Real-World Projects Sharpens the Literacy Skills of Connected Students - October 24, 2013
- Going Deep: STEM in the Connected Classroom - March 15, 2013
- My Voice for Change: Muted, But Not Silenced - July 6, 2012
What a perceptive and concise description of STEM, Brian! And you identify some real problems that teachers and administrators constantly encounter. I particularly resonate with this comment: “For this to work well in schools, however, we have to have innovative thinking, teacher autonomy and flexibility in scheduling. These essential components of “going deep” with teaching and learning have been eroded away in the last decade.”
Richard Ingersoll said, “A culture of increased accountability – good in theory, more questionable in practice – has made the classroom an ever-less appealing place to work. With a steady focus on testing, teachers have less discretion and less autonomy in their classrooms.”
So, assuming that teachers are adequately prepared and equipped to teach STEM curriculum, the support structures (time, opportunity, discretion, flexibility) must be in place to make this truly effective. In the meantime, many of our subject-area teachers struggle along teaching S.T.E.M. instead of STEM.
Thanks for your insights! I’m checking out your blog next. Glad I’ve discovered you!
Hi Anne – Thanks for the comment. I spent most of last week in Boston at an Engineering is Elementary training at the Science Museum. Many of the discussions, questions and comments during the week were around your last paragraph. 12 years of NCLB and other programs have left us with way too few educators with the mindset, experience or will to fully engage with what must seem now as a radical approach…. even just to teach S.T.E.M.
Stay in touch! : )
Well, I’m not sure about what is really new with STEM. Right now I have 6 stations set up where my 9th grade Science students are calculating (math) speed, acceleration, mass, Force and such. They have to design the lab to incorporate various things that can effect Force (engineering), and the whole point of spending two classes is to understand Newton’s 2nd Law and it’s applications in society (Society).
I’ve done the same with chemical bonds (Science) – breaking and remaking them using cooking (Society), where the students had to follow recipes and use the correct utensils, etc (engineering).
I could go on and on and on, but this is simply the way I have been teaching Science for years. Every year changes as I learn what is new in Science, but overall my students have always done many, many hands-on labs. And, in many cases I just give them the problem and have them figure out various solutions using trial, error and research.
Not sure what is really new in STEM.
Hi Richard – You are correct STEM isn’t necessarily new … but to many teachers that have taught for less than 10 years or so, they may have never been exposed to it. I think we could find others that have taught science the way you describe, especially at the high school level, but more and more science, social studies, art and other subjects have been narrowed out of the curriculum, especially at the elementary level. I have observed and spoken with middle and high school science teachers however that have been told to mostly read about their subjects with an emphasis on how to use the parts of the textbook – index, charts, graphs, captions and more, because students will be asked about that on the reading test too. At many of our at risk schools only language arts and math are to be taught – the other subjects can be read about, but no actual content is to be stressed. At several schools I know teachers were told that when they signed on to teach in a “Title 1 school” they gave up their right to teach anything but literacy and math.
So yes, STEM might not be new, but the fact that suddenly it is deemed important again is a step in the right direction.
Brian – Another example of how we integrate disciplines: I received a grant this year – “Jamestown Meets RHAM” – a cross-disciplinary grant for Art, Social Studies and Science. In class we actually made glass while talking about molecular structure, structure of various materials, etc, in Art we made molds and then made the glass ornaments that were made at Jamestown, the Social Studies students gave presentations to the Science students on the business ventures and such at Jamestown, and a group of us went to a glass blowing studio where we all made various glass objects, received a great presentation on the history of glass blowing, and then toured a glass studio and met the artists.
BTW, I have been teaching only for 6 years – a wonderful second career after a long stint in IT.
Incorporating various things is not engineering. That is the problem, changing a variable in an experiment is not engineering. Math and Science teachers need to realize that and learn to work with their buildings Technology & Engineering Education teachers to create true STEM related content that is cross curricular. You can not really have a cross-curricular STEM program until you stop forgetting about the T and E of the acronym.
Agreed. We have students tackle “embedded tasks” – they are given boxes of parts without instructions and have to build a catapult, make a simple roller coaster, design a lever system to launch a ping pong ball 12 feet through various size hula hoops, use a small battery powered electric motor and various parts to get a ping pong ball through a room size maze without use of hands and other such challenges. I also have the computers available so that when they get frustrated they can sit down and do some research.
However, I believe that not every activity has to completely involve STEM………students need the theoretical background material, and have to be given the opportunity to fail and try again………my 2 cents…………
Hi JB, You are exactly right. Science is about asking questions and engineering is about defining problems. Science begins with a question about a phenomenon, such as “Why is the sky blue?” While engineering begins with a problem that needs to be solved, such as designing a new transportation system. (Kind of paraphrased right from the K-12 science framework). Another shift that educators are going to have to wrap their minds around if we are going to truly do STEM.
Excellent article. I am a middle school STEM teacher, and I must say that is a program new in Mexico but my students love it. Teaching strategies and excellent hands on activities must be carefully applied according students’ learning styles . In my case I use digital interactive presentations created by myself or taken from educational sites working as well with another area which is robotics. Thank you.
I am math and science teacher who is going to teach Robotics this year. Are you using lego to teach robotics?
Hi Cheryl – I’ve worked with Lego robotics in the past, yes. Legos are nice because students download their programming into the robot and can then disconnect it from the computer … no wires to deal with.
Very interesting. The key is transforming form the hard-wired ‘presentation’ pedagogy to one of the new design methodology. We have the components, just not the means of comprehensive implementation. So long as we are skilled into skilled subject for common testing, this will prove impossible.
So let’s keep pressing on both sides of the border..
Yes Barry, how current testing fits here is key. I’m afraid no matter how much emphasis and hoopla we see and hear about STEM, the current way we test and now evaluate teachers will cause many to continue or go right back to narrowing the curriculum. It will be interesting! : )
You all may be interested in something we are doing in Michigan middle schools, small scale now but trying to spread the word. Working with an engineer, we have designed a way to teach middle and high school students how to do multiple variable analysis to improve a product, or base design. Middle school students have tripled the voltage output on their Kinex wind turbines, doubled the spin time of a wooden top and learned quadratics by designing a virtual roller coaster. To learn more about this, visit http://www.Q4ktoday.com We would love to talk to you if you are interested in collaborating on a STEM project like these.
Hi Kaarin – Sounds like you are involved in some great projects! I don’t have my own classroom right now, but if a class I am working with is looking for a collaboration experience I’ll pass it on. I just got back from being trained in “Engineering is Elementary” in Boston. Seems like a promising curriculum being developed by a non-profit (Boston Museum of Science). You might be interested in this from my own blog: http://learningismessy.com/blog/?p=1406 where I describe a windmill training we did with teachers, and here: http://learningismessy.com/blog/?p=1427 where we did a family STEM night with hand held windmills at a local elementary.
Glad to see that you made mention of ‘STEAM’. It is important to realize that artistic habits of mind are all-important in any endeavor that involves creating. There are many who feel that ‘STEM’ is not complete without the ‘A’….to make it ‘STEAM’. Inclusion of the aesthetic requires yet another level of depth and thought to the design process. After all, even Max Planck understood the importance of artful thinking: “The scientist needs an artistically creative imagination.”
Couldn’t agree more Virginia, the arts are so much more important than too many seem to realize. In addition, the “engineering” part of STEM is often very artistic, both deliberately and not.
Virginia – a misconception as well is that in adding the “A” to STEM is meant as a purely aesthetic addition. Where this is undervalued is that in any engineered solution to a problem, the ability for the benefactor (human, animal or otherwise) to be able to properly interface with the solution is paramount.
STEM is primarily results-based. Find a problem, solve it; find a question, answer it. STEAM is user-based. If students are expected to develop an engineered solution to a problem, or improve upon a design, it is important that design be involved and that’s where the “A” comes in.
A good analogy for this would be a World-War II era walkie-talkie vs. an iPhone; or Windows 8 vs. a DOS PC. The walkie-talkie and the DOS PC both used technologies that are still in use today. But an iPhone has evolved into much more than a basic radio transmitter and DOS is still the core of Windows 8. But designers have taken the science and engineering behind the old technologies and made them more human-centered, more easily accessible. That is what STEAM has to offer.
We have some good STEAM links at our organization’s website at http://www.design-ed.org.
I really enjoyed reading your article. As an ed-tech startup founder that focuses on STEM, a lot of what you say here resonates with what we’re trying to do at GradFly, particularly STEM collaboration taking on new dimensions. We’re trying to do that via portfolios and giving students various ways to learn from each other’s projects. Chemists talk to chemists, robotics to robotics, coders to coders, etc. And then we open the door for colleges and companies to get involved.
I’d love to get in touch and tell you a little bit about how we’re trying to solve that issue. Figured I had nothing to lose by reaching out.
I appreciate your post. I, too, am struggling to STEMify our current Science Materials Center, using science (as you say) as the hook to jump start uncovering understanding in the STEM disciplines. The struggle now is how to break up the “traditional” schedule in the elementary schools where science has been pigeon-holed to 2 hours a week. We are attempting to break through the scheduling challenge by suggesting a more holistic instructional approach. Who said you can’t use non-fiction text during the “literacy block”? Let’s keep in touch. I will check out your blog.
Hi Rob – Yes that is a big part of this. Had a conversation today with teachers at a school that is in the early stages of becoming a STEM school, and they are struggling with what that means. Some of us are trying to explain that often the reading and the math should be about the science and engineering pieces and then the day should continue on doing the science and engineering involved – some can’t let go of siloing the day into parts – reading, math, writing, science, social studies each getting their own chunk. STEM is not a separate subject … this is going to be one of the real sticking points if in the end the goal is to be truly doing STEM.
I really enjoyed reading this article. STEM is new to me but the idea or concept of broadening the teaching in the classroom is phnormanal. If every teacher/school administrator should adopt STEM at their school, I believe we’ll have a better world tomorrow – for as it’s said “leaders tomorrow is dependant on how we educate our students today” (President Obama September 16, 2010).
Further, in this technological age in which we live, educators/policy makers must view our students as candles to be lit and not as empty bottles to be filled” Teaching to include a broader prospective will create more creative and critical thinking minds. Brian your article clearly highlights the changes that can happen if we adopt STEM in our schools.
Hi Hermione – I agree … now how do we get those policy makers and other stakeholders involved in a supportive way?
Brian, this is a great question and I’m not sure myself how we can get the policy makers to adjust and go the STEM way. Every time a new process or idea comes about, policy makers accept it as great but stop short and ask “Where’s the money” to venture further? No money for same they say but money is had for everything else. Perhaps we can create seminars for Heads of Governments possible via CARICOM; OAS, OECS, COMMONWEALTH or other such country groupings. I know that countries focus on different ideas and some presently are making science and technology their country’s priority. Some countries are even making “Tablets” available to all students in schools (T&T, St Vincent, Antigua and possibly Grenada shortly). Thus, if the idea of STEM can be “sold ” to the Heads and get them on board with the idea of STEM, I believe that it will trickle down to the rest of the policy makers , teacher collages , specialized science teachers and finally in the classrooms. Does anyone have a better idea? I’ll Waite to see!
I was wondering if anyone could recommend reading materials on STEM and connected classrooms?
Hi Shaik – I’ve been reading “STEM Lesson Essentials – Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” by Vasquez, Sneider and Comer, and found it to be a great resource. Hope that helps.
Shaik – here are some more suggestions. From PLP on connected learning-
And my book on Making Connections with Blogging:
I am a 5th grade teacher of math and science. In my science classes we teach the Engineering Design Process and we use the Museum of Science program “Engineering is Elementary”. So our science classes incorporate hands-on-science, with measurement, data, walking through the steps of the design process, connection to a branch of engineering, a related book that includes cultural connections, and a writing component.
My question is about my math class, which is separate. How do I teach computation, geometry, fractions, decimals, and algebra, within the context of these hands-on science and engineering activities?
Kristen – I think one key is to keep track of the data students collect as they do the EiE activities (I just returned from a training there) as well as the science experiments you perform. Obviously, at times you will use that data to explore your results right away, but if you also archive that data then as say you are teaching “mean” in math later on you have data your students have a connection to to practice and explore that data in a way you might not have initially. Data should really be collected as metric (the math of science) and that will in turn bring in the decimals and even the fraction work you are looking for. I also have my students blogging and connecting in other ways with classrooms globally, and if you share data, say over blogs, it is archived and that provides more chances for your students to work with and compare data and results.
I am not a teacher although I would love to be. But I am a career software developer and a Technology Evangelist particularly for under represented groups. I think you are right on point. Keep spreading the word and writing such informed and inspired articles.
I am currently working on my Masters of Arts in Teaching degree. I have a B.S. in biology. I am quite excited about the STEM movement. It is very important that students be able to integrate concepts from other subjects to truly understand topics. I see too many students today that do not know how to do this, and it is quite disheartening.
I have been following your blog through my EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama and I have thoroughly enjoyed so many of your posts and even this one about STEM learning is a great one. Thanks for all that you do, I have learned so much just from simply reading your blog and posts. Thanks again,
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