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STEM Education Needs an Orchestra of Change Leaders

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123rf yigeyinghua.jpgThere are more educators, business leaders, engineers, artists, and scientists coming out in support of STEM education.  Concomitantly, we have witnessed more and more push back and misunderstanding about what STEM means from the field. We have heard leaders bemoan, "I'm sick of hearing about STEM." Perhaps it is because the acronym, itself, leads one to think about four subjects and four subjects only. But, that is a narrow interpretation of a STEM centric environment. STEM, the four subjects, are the engine that can move schools and districts from their firmly planted "old school" feet into a dynamic teaching and learning environment that serves the students of this century. 

We may be long gone, but the children born this year will turn 84 at the next turn of the century.  It is a reasonable life expectance for them to have. We will have educated them.  Will they have a firmly established set of digital and personal ethics? Will they have come through our system having learned that they have unknown talents and through inquiry, partnerships with professionals, like scientists, engineers, artists, historians, archivists, bankers, doctors, lawyers, architects, and entrepreneurs and found that they had have the capacity to move into fields of study that they previously never thought they could or will they have learned separate subjects and forgotten them?  Will we have given them the solid foundation to be prepared to live in an ever-changing world, where the secrets held in DNA will have been revealed, where currency is an archaic notion, where life extending interventions are invented and ethical decisions become paramount? Unless we have given students experiences in which they are empowered as learners, investigators, inventors, creators, communicators, collaborators, and critical thinkers, how prepared for their journeys to becoming an 84 year old in the turn of the century will they be? And, for some, let us remember, the time they spend in our classrooms ends their formal educational journey.

Today's Leaders and Tomorrow's Graduates
So many of the leaders at the helm of schools and districts came to their positions because they saw in themselves the capacity and ability to positively impact more than their classroom. They felt suited to contribute to the development of policies, supervise teachers, develop relationships with students, parents, and teachers, be visible in the community, and, generally speaking, run the organization. For superintendents running the district, the responsibilities go further to include building a relationship with the board of education and to be the representative of the district in larger leadership arenas, be it civic or political, county or state. We saw the job and decided we could do it and maybe even better than it was being done. But, few signed on to cause fundamental changes in the system.

Here we are, almost 17 years into the 21st century.  We still can't say that schools reflect the world in which our students live let alone the one they will continue to live as adults. The focus for schools remains on mastery and graduation rates that are based upon century's old standards of operation.  Grades, bell curves, advanced and extended classes, 30 and 40 minute periods of instruction, separate subjects, high walls and closed doors.  While we were stashing bottles of water and backing up computer systems in preparation for Y2K, our time would have been better spent brainstorming how we were going to change how we educate children. We need change leaders.

Don't dismiss the idea of STEM as an opportunity without realizing its potential. It is the knowledge, skills and interactions between these four subjects that serve as a model for all other subjects.  It is these four subjects that form the foundation for the workforce of the future. Actually, today, hundreds of computers and millions of lines of code control the cars we drive and think of what will happen for those cars that are self driven? Yet, those talented people who fix our cars still need to be able to distinguish the facts, and reality have to think critically about the evidence that is being presented, and be able to, with comfort, consult with a colleague, and be able to change their mind if the new evidence calls for that.  Are we teaching that?

The American Institutes of Research published a 73 page report STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education.  The Journal reported:

As "STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education" summarized, "The complexities of today's world require all people to be equipped with a new set of core knowledge and skills to solve difficult problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information they receive from varied print and, increasingly, digital media. The learning and doing of STEM helps develop these skills and prepare students for a workforce where success results not just from what one knows, but what one is able to do with that knowledge."

Courtney Tanenbaum of AIR who served as the principal writer for the report was quoted in the article:

"Effective STEM education that's accessible and inclusive of all students is increasingly important...In today's world, all youth need teaching and learning experiences that empower them with the belief they can understand and shape the world through STEM."

Taking these findings to heart, change leaders are needed in every position from the superintendent, the central office leaders, principals, assistants, and the teachers. Relationships matter. Resistance may rise. But all eyes must remain on the children and the future, hazy as it is.  What do we know about the results of what we are teaching and how it will influence the futures of our students?  If the answer is unclear, perhaps that is a starting point. How is time being spent?  Where is energy focused? Why are we doing what we are doing?  And perhaps the first question can be "What do I need to learn about being a change leader and whom can I bring along with me?" Because leading change is not a solo performance. It is the well-orchestrated work of talented change leaders playing from a shared vision and generating applause from the audience of students and parents who are appreciative.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email

Illustration by yigeyinghua courtesy of 123rf

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