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Leaders Becoming STEM-Ready

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DENYS Rudyi 123rf.jpgIs your district STEM-ready? Schools have responded to the popular demand for graduates interested in the expanding careers with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. They've added courses, clubs, events, and added the acronym 'STEM' with information to their websites.  But what does STEM-ready mean? The answer?  It depends.

Why Lead STEM?
Answering the important question "Why is STEM our choice?" involves a local process.  This time, there is no federal mandate, no legislation saying what STEM looks like and prescribing how we do it. On the surface, thinking about these subjects, minds turn to advanced and specialized courses, a special STEM day or a career event. They can be the toe dipping into the STEM waters.  But, remaining at that level limits the tremendous potential STEM presents to make the breakthroughs we desire and the progress we have talked about for decades.  STEM offers a radical opening. As we travel around the country presenting about STEM and the potential held, our evidence is found in places where STEM has planted it roots. Most often, in those places, there has been a concomitant discovery that STEM cannot release it full potential without the arts strongly connected.  Hence, many of those districts have adopted the acronym STEAM as a result. So, the name is chosen but the substance remains amorphous.

Adding disconnected pieces ...a unit, a teacher, a program, or an event....is not a bad thing.  They serve as the seeds for the larger inherent opportunity. But without a broader and deeper vision and plan, the opportunity to shift the organization into one that is responding to this century's students can be lost. The move into that transformation of teaching and learning and the development of creative, productive engaged partnerships will pick up 'STEAM' if school leaders have taken some initial steps.

  • Gain knowledge about STEM and its possibilities builds. The leader does not have to be a specialist, but the leader does need to understand the power and possibilities of a system-wide STEM shift. The leader needs to hold the firm belief that all students will benefit from new learning opportunities that cross curricular lines and cause a new kind of student engagement. STEM courses reserved for the academically gifted leave out many who would thrive in a new environment. Establishing allies and partnerships with businesses and higher education are crucial to realizing the potential, as is problem and project based learning.  There is much to learn and understand and it begins within the leader.
  • Bring together a guiding coalition of teachers, parents, other administrators, community members, businesses and higher education. On this journey, it is important to reach out extensively, to people we haven't yet worked with and to people who may be the opposition.  Not only can this inclusion identify the problems that might arise later, it lays a trust foundation for the leader and the purpose of the work. We know that setting the message is a mighty force and these people are part of that work and are also the tellers of the story.
  • Search for schools that are ahead in the journey and visit them with the team. Seeing other implementations of STEM or STEAM helps to form pictures of possibilities.  The team can then begin to identify places in the school or district where readiness exists. There are eagerly awaiting the opportunity (or permission) to work across disciplines in a collaborative discovery process. They give life to the shared vision.
  • Continue open communication with all stakeholders as the progress continues. If the aim is to develop a pathway for ALL students to have a changed learning experience across their grades and curricula, then parents and the community at large must be kept abreast of the changing thinking and practices that are taking place. Activate multiple avenues and multiple spokespersons for the vison so that all know a STEM shift is underway.
  • Decide on the indicators that will inform everyone of the progress. As the previous steps are put in place, the definition of what STEM means in your community and how it will come to life in your schools form.  Setting a goal and being prepared for a moving horizon line is critical. Once the vision is formed, developing markers or indicators that will inform everyone of progress is essential. These become part of the broadcast message system.

Leadership Matters
In this, and all things involving systemic change, leadership matters. The role of the leader of a change such as this requires a leader draw from 4 reservoirs:  STEM knowledge, skills and capacity for coalition building, skill to lead non-mandated change and passion (Myers & Berkowicz. p. 59). Passion is a personal source from which this hard work draws its energy.  The work is hard but it is also energizing.

Like a chemical catalyst, passion changes the nature of the other reservoirs, making them stronger, giving them voice and words that speak to the heads and hearts of followers and partners.  Passion is rational and heartfelt (Myers & Berkowicz. p. 60).

Leading a change process is not a singular responsibility. But it goes without saying, the first question has to be "Am I ready to lead a STEM shift?" or "Do I want a STEM shift to be part of my legacy?" If the answer to either question is affirmative, the journey for the school or district has already begun.  It begins when the leader's head and heart are united and clear that STEM can be education's next right answer for all students, not as four subjects but as a way of organizing schools, of enlivening teaching and learning, of creating relevancy for children and of partners eager to be involved. How can we allow these positive things to slip through our leadership fingers? Let's take hold of them and bring them into our schools.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The STEM Shift: A Guide for School Leaders (2015). Myers, A. & Berkowicz, J. Thousand Oaks, California:  Corwin 

Illustration by DENYS Rudyi courtesy of 123rf  

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