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More STEM Teachers Is Not Enough

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Updated 1.11.16*

The National Science Foundation is one of 230+ partners supporting 100Kin10's efforts to train and retain 100,000 "excellent STEM teachers" by 2021. The basis for the founding of 100Kin10 lies in the belief that our country needs to have more graduates ready to join the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math in this century of advancing innovation.  100Kin10 is a network of 230 corporations, foundations, universities, school districts, and museums dedicated to this goal.  It is great news that there is a network forming to support this movement but our first thought is why only 230 members? 

The nation has a long history of pushing its schools to produce more STEM ready graduates. The call to be globally competitive and create more scientists is not unlike the efforts of the 1950's and 1960's. Many think of the space race and associate it with President Kennedy, but, here, in 1957 is President Eisenhower calling for schools to produce more scientists.

Now, here we are in 2016 with the same need and the same call for response. The world has changed in the past fifty years for sure but what remains unchanged is the call for graduates prepared to lead and work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Colleges failed to produce new science, technology, engineering and math teachers. K-12 schools failed to successfully take the steps to re-educate their existing faculties in order to develop science, technology, engineering, and math teachers who were prepared to develop students in these areas. And, students have not been encouraged into what is still held as the elite of the subject areas, open only to the few rather than to all.

We Know More Now, So We Can Do Better Now
Educators know more now than we did back then and we have an environment with increasingly open cooperation among K-12 schools, colleges, and business partners. We can develop schools where all students have an opportunity to develop the skills and interests in STEM areas beginning in kindergarten. If we continue to think of STEM as a track for the students who are motivated and attracted to those subjects or who are good in those subjects, we will contribute to growing an achievement gap.

Although STEM is a four-subject acronym, it is not only the subjects themselves that prepare students for the future. It is the manner in which these subjects exist in service to each other, and the manner in which their application serves as an externalized learning process that becomes visible to the teacher and the learner.  Our belief about STEM is, as we have written often, that it is an expansive term that invites all subjects into the process all based upon the talents and resources that already exist locally.

With teachers who are trained to understand engineering principles, for example, early engineering principles that begin with the youngest students can be revealed in block building and in programs like Scratch Jr. and PBS Kids Scratch Jr. These beginning coding programs for computational thinking and mathematics concepts can provide opportunities for the young children to design projects, solve problems, and express themselves creatively. But randomly trained teachers, rather than a school and district-wide plan for implementation does little to lift the entire system.

In How Students Learn:  Mathematics in the Classroom, Donovan and Bransford argue that there are four lenses to use to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching and learning environments:

  1. The learner-centered lens encourages attention to preconceptions, and begins instruction with what students think and know.
  2. The knowledge-centered lens focuses on what is to be taught, why it is taught, and what mastery looks like.
  3. The assessment-centered lens emphasizes the need to provide frequent opportunities to make students' thinking and learning visible as a guide for both the teacher and the student in learning and instruction
  4. The community-centered lens encourages a culture of questioning, respect, and risk taking. (p.11)

These four lenses serve all subjects, yet that isn't enough. It is in the sense making where much work must be done. The understanding of how subjects are interconnected and how they apply in the workforce and in life is what will capture and advance students. Schools that have done so know this to be true.  This, too, leaves no subject out. 

Leadership First and Always
As the shifts in thinking, teaching, and learning are emerging, the leader must be knowledgeable, energized, able to build a coalition of teachers, parents, business, higher education, and community members, and lead without the hammer of it being a mandated change (Myers & Berkowicz. p. 59). The road to preparing young people to live in the world where the economy is based on innovations fueled by science, technology, engineering, and math is to teach them how to see connections, think critically, alone and with others, create, collaborate, and communicate. These are not confined to the four subjects. We need to be thinking about how students learn and how teaching and learning in all subjects can change the numbers of students prepared and interested in the careers that are calling in their futures.

Teachers' perspectives can be changed by learning from professionals in the field.

But having those professionals working in the schools, next to the teachers and students can be a boon unimagined.

Understanding the integration of the four subjects around a problem to solve is essential. We argue that it is in no way exclusive. The integration of the four subjects is a beginning, certainly. Literature, social studies, art, music, physical education, business, journalism, debate, theatre...all have a place.  Here, a beginning understanding of the value of the integration of the four subjects:

Finally, from Stratford STEM Magnet High School in Nashville Tennessee, you can see the engagement of students in activities from which not only have they learned, but can communicate their learning in ways not done in traditional learning environments.  It is important to note these students are experiencing this level of success without having experienced this type of learning before the 10th grade; evidence that even in beginning shifts in the learning process students' are affected in powerful ways.

The call for more great STEM teachers should not mean teachers for all grades who are knowledgeable in science, technology, engineering, and math. It means all teacher preparation and embedded professional development for all teachers must include:

  1. training in the relationships that exist across curriculum,
  2. the engagement that connections, application, relationships, and performance provoke
  3. the value of problem and project based learning
  4. the need for professional partnerships
  5. the quest for including all students, from their very first days in school
  6. the need for focused, informed, passionate leaders

It is then we have a chance to heed the call not only to produce more scientists, but to prepare more students to choose their futures.

Myers. A. & Berkowicz, J. (2015) The STEM Shift: A guide for school leaders. Thousand Oaks, California:  Corwin
Donovan, M. S & Bransford, J.D. (2005) How Students Learn: Mathematics in the classroom. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Correction: The original version of this post misspelled the name of the organization 100Kin10; it also indicated that the National Science Foundation was its sole source of funding. 


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