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Are Students Getting the Education They Need?

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If we don't solidify the definition of STEM as being more than a four subject specialization, we will miss an important opportunity to offer today's students the education they need and deserve. We've written about it often. Yet, we continue to find misunderstandings and restrictive interpretations abound. A recent article in The Journal entitled Study Finds 14 Common Traits For Strong STEM Outcomes leaned heavily on the idea that the four subjects are important. They did talk about the inclusion of more students than those who have excelled in these subjects and the need to welcome all students into STEM focused high schools. That's a good thing.

This is a new kind of school that is much more inclusive and is bringing in students who want to be there and study STEM, no matter their backgrounds. They have figured out how to do things differently, to trust their students to achieve and their teachers to guide students toward STEM college majors.

More Than One Purpose
First, it is clear that the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics are the fields open for American workers to fill vacancies. That said, preparing more students, all students, to have the choice to work in those fields is our responsibility. That is the purpose that has caught the attention of businesses and politicians. What is lacking in some of their perspective is that if we simply focus on the four subjects, a gap in the workforce will surely be broadened. Students with an already existing penchant for those subjects will be the only ones arriving in those jobs. There will be no expansion for the workforce nor encouragement by inclusion of students with undeveloped interest and untapped potential. We have many, many students in classrooms who have not discovered their own abilities and interests. It is our job to support them and help them find their calling as they journey through their classes and grades. Second, and most certainly in our wheelhouse, is the care of all students with undiscovered talents and desires and their need for a different kind of education.

STEM shifted or STEM based programs invite each school and district to have teachers advance learning through problem and project based learning opportunities. They allow historically siloed subjects to shed their boundaries and come together as they exist in the real world outside of schools. Business and higher education partners are the best resources for this type of work because they have a keen sense of the ways in which these subjects relate to the workforce.

At Stratford STEM Magnet High School in Nashville, Tennessee, even early in their shift to a STEM based school, they had students who, without previous strong math or science performances, found an interest and were offered opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge that brought them to state wide recognition for their work with scientists from Vanderbilt University.  Even in those early years, Principal Michael Steele had the honor of inviting students into his office to tell them they had been offered scholarships to colleges to be met with surprise and appreciation. These were not traditional honor students. These were students who had discovered their talent as teenagers in an environment that cultivated them as learners, even though beginning as adolescents. That is what a STEM based environment can do.

If We're Reckless, the Gap Will Continue
There is other evidence across the country that even if beginning in the high school, students' attention to their studies changes once they are engaged in problem solving and learning for a real purpose other than finishing a course and earning a grade. We cannot be reckless. The success that can be found in some high schools that have shifted to STEM focused environments is not guaranteed for all students. The only way we can do that is to begin early. 

Elementary and middle schools can narrow the gap so that more students who arrive at STEM shifted high schools can already have developed skills in problem solving, collaborating with other students and professionals, critical thinking, and communicating. When they already have become engaged in the cross disciplinary learning that is designed to make sense with subjects taught in service to others, students come to high school more awakened and primed as a new kind of learner, prepared for the challenging and exciting learning experiences a STEM shifted high school can offer.

Students entering the doors of schools need different things, more things than generations before. There are more mobile students who do not experience 13-years in one district. There are more differently abled students, more students suffering from psychiatric and psychological stressors and more students whose talents are buried deep underneath the baggage they bring with them through the school and classroom doors.

What is it that today's students require?  If we continue to allow systems to be the same as they were in days past, then we are preparing students for a world past.  That simply makes no sense.

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 courtesy of Pixabay

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