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Is a STEM Shift Fun? Yes, and Hard Work Too

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It was with curiosity we noted an article in an ASCD Education Update entitled, "STEM on the Cheap".  Our work has been focused on the opportunities that STEM offers schools to truly shift into a 21st century teaching and learning environment. So naturally the title caused us to wonder what this could mean.  The article begins by sharing a story that a principal asked a teacher to create a STEM exploratory class, all hands-on, and discovery based, two weeks before school was to open. This was to be a required class for 11-13 year olds. The article reported the teacher devised a curriculum around what he thought the children would enjoy building. He depended upon parent donations that the article reported were plentiful. His goal was to make it fun and align it to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Hats off to the teacher who was able to pull this off in a matter of two weeks.

One of the headings in the article read, "A Spot for STEM". It began,

STEM is a necessity for today's students, but many schools don't have the funding or personnel to create a program or exploratory class (p. 3). 

The Economy is Calling
We have an achievement gap in schools that in many cases supports a national income gap. Our economy demands workers who are innovators, collaborators, communicators, creative thinkers, and critical thinkers.  It is important that educators understand and incorporate STEM as more than four subjects (or five if art is being discussed).  It is less about adding courses in four subject areas and more about how teaching and learning takes place, less about an elective or a club or event for a few and more about including all students in all grades in all subjects. 

Where to Begin?
The entry points into a systemic STEM shift can be a classroom, or a grade level, or a department or a move toward project based problem based learning. The successful tow week elective may be the catalyst to take it further, more widely and deeply. We are not suggesting the article held shortcomings. Every entry is unique to the local school and system. Tips on how to move from a traditional classroom to one in which the teacher designs opportunities for students that are engaging and invite students into inquiry, problem solving, critical thinking abound and are helpful.  

Do Not Allow a Limited View of STEM to Take Hold
This is not the only article that called our attention as holding potential for reinforcing a limited view of what we truly need in this century for our students.  USA Today published an article entitled Fusing fun with learning, new 'STEM' toys debut. In it they describe

The good news: many of today's toys reinforce learning through STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math - which not only straddles the line between entertainment and education, but helps sharpen young minds for a future career in the digital space.

It is clear the global economy needs workers who are able to maneuver the world of science, technology, engineering, and math; thus, the attention to developing students who can graduate and enter those ranks. Suggesting to parents and educators that STEM is a four-subject endeavor and that its purpose is to make learning fun limits the scope of new learning potential STEM allows.

Fun Is Not Enough
Few will roll up their sleeves to do this hard work with the sole aim of making learning fun.  Learning is fun and it is work. Students who are challenged with rigorous learning opportunities that raise their understanding of the subjects they are learning, and cause them to care and become engaged in the learning process, taking charge of their own learning is an aim for all educators. The goal is for all students to benefit. A STEM learning environment invites that. The leader is the lynchpin.  We support leaders who take the first step knowing it is the first step as well as those who take a step, watch how children become engaged and decide to expand the initiative. The ASCD story doesn't reveal whether the principal is one of these. Unfortunately, we still hear about those who add a STEM club or course just because of the popular pressure to do so. We are optimistic that even those will eventually see the value of this new learning environment.

Leaders Matter
STEM, as a shift in the way teaching and learning takes place, can begin anywhere in the system, with any teacher or group of teachers. But the landscape on which this takes place requires a vision and a set strategic path to arrive at the new horizon line. In order for that to happen, leaders often gather an inclusive team of teachers, students, parents, community members, business partners, and higher education partners to guide and support the journey.  That group of people becomes the nuclear center as the goal becomes clearer and the energy to bring a new way of teaching and learning into the schools grows.

There a need for 21st century learning design, and STEM for all. Neither is simply about creating fun environments in which students build stuff and share it in a digital environment.  That diminishes the power of thinking and learning and dismisses the potential held by the struggling as well as the advanced students.  STEM is part of what we need for today's students.  STEM offers a model of learning by doing.  STEM invites educators to consider new ways of bringing subjects together and finding ways that they can be taught and learned in service to each other.  STEM invites business and higher education into K-12 environments as partners who can help educators see the ways the  traditionally taught, siloed subjects are used in the real world.  STEM offers students, even in the earliest years, opportunities to work hard on projects that mean something to them, to learn in order to solve. And, yes, it can be fun for them and fun to watch them as discovers. STEM offers a variety of ways for students to learn, opening the doors to students who may not have done as well in the traditional classroom.

STEM Shifting Creates a Radical Opening
We invite a deeper look into the potential STEM holds. STEM creates an environment of hard, collaborative work that is relevant to the learner, that invites all students, talented and challenged, to engage with real problems that they can solve. STEM helps break down the walls that separate subjects and invites teachers and other professionals to work together to design learning for students. STEM as the lever shifts the system into a 21st learning system. It depends on the leader developing the vision for the district, the landscape on which these changes can happen and guaranteeing the support those making the changes need. If we have fun along the way , all the better.

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