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STEM For Our Students and Our Economy

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training-409584_640.jpgThink about a typical day for a high school student in the US. Required subjects are scheduled into a 5 + hour day. As the students who are successful progress through grades, from freshman, sophomore, junior to senior, the likelihood of electives arise.  If the student shows promise in one subject or another, perhaps there are teachers or counselors who offer support and encouragement for him or her to pursue a field or a cluster.  If the school has extra-curricular offerings, students who have become part of the school community may join a club or a sport for after school experiences.  Preparing students for college and career may be left to guidance counselors or it may simply assumed that parents are on top of it.  More affluent parents have guided their children to build the college application resume with high grades, an array of extracurricular and community activities and will employ consultants to prepare them for admission tests and for application letter writing. Surely if a student graduates from high school, our programs have prepared them for their next steps, haven't they?  This is a good time to decide if that is true. 

Why STEM? 
Now, more than ever, with the country hanging on to the belief that the economy will grow, we need to take a hard look at reality.  If companies bring manufacturing back to our shores, if US companies are called upon for innovation and creativity, we have a responsibility to prepare students for these demands, don't we?  And if H-1B Visas become more limited the labor pool for technology companies shrinks rapidly. The companies who need skilled labor in science, technology, engineering, and math will weaken as their counterparts around the world flourish. And, the pressure on us will intensify.

However, it is not all about jobs in science, technology, engineering, or math. It is also about qualities. How many jobs do not require employees who are thoughtful, creative, critical thinkers, good communicators, and skilled collaborators?  Whether becoming a teacher, a nurse, an electrician, a physician's assistant, an artist, a retail salesperson, a scientist, an inventor, an educational leader, a physicist, an engineer, a counselor, a CEO, or a funeral director...no matter the field, where can one be successful and lack those skills? 

The skills needed to be successful cannot be assumed as present in each classroom. "STEM works for children at all levels, so to limit it to one level misses the advantages it affords overall" (p. 71).  In order for students to develop these skills over time, a building-wide at least, and a system-wide at best, effort to include project based learning is essential.  Otherwise, how can these skills be learned?  They can be read about and quizzed. They can be offered in 4th grade and then not again until a courageous teacher in middle or high school experiments with the concept.  But, these won't be learned sporadically and they won't be learned by all. These skills, like those included in vertical curriculum planning in any subject, must be planned in a spiraled fashion, building expectations as skills are mastered, throughout the 13 year school experience.

The Buck Institute, a leader in project based learning, describes the Gold Standard for Project Based Learning on their website. It includes students being prepared for projects, not solely as a performance after the learning, but as the learning begins and unfolds. 

  1. Projects begin with Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success
  2. Followed by a Challenging Problem or Question that demands Sustained Inquiry 
  3. It must require real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact - or speaks to students' personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.
  4. And include Student Voice & Choice
  5. Student and teacher are required to Reflect on the learning, the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, obstacles and how to overcome them.
  6. There is time held for Feedback & Revision- Students give, receive, and use feedback to improve their process and products.
  7. And finally, a Public Product is shared with the public by explaining, displaying and/or presenting it to professionals or professors who work beyond the classroom. (Gold Standard Project Design)

This does not apply to every class, every lesson, or question studied.  But it does invite a shift in thinking about how curriculum is delivered as a spiral from K through 12, doesn't it?

What is essential about this type of learning is that it is not only the basis for preparation for college and career; it is the basis for how science, technology, engineering, and math live in the world beyond academia.  If schools looked at the early elementary years as the pool of potential for all students and began working in this model, the possibilities for more students to be successful rises. But there are those who  are still thinking of high school as the place for these subjects, not as a new approach to learning but as elective subjects.

Consider this article in Teachers College Record (tcrecord.com) that reported on a study of the relationships among high school STEM learning experiences and students' intention to declare a STEM major in college. Authors Martha Cecilia Bottia, Elizabeth Stearns, Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Stephanie Moller & Ashley Dawn Parker found:

Findings suggest that STEM experiences of inspiration/reinforcement/preparation during high school interact with demographic variables to moderate students' interest in STEM. Taking physics and intending to major in STEM during high school are the variables most closely associated with students' choice of STEM as a major. In addition, taking physics is especially important for young women's odds of declaration of STEM.

Who takes physics in high school?  Who feels confident enough to take advanced courses in science, technology, engineering and math in high school?  Your answer is exactly the point.  There are ways to prepare more students to take the leap, by being prepared to meet the challenges of these advanced experiences, by beginning early. The evidence of how using this type of teaching and learning empowers learners exists within the schools across the nation that have begun this journey. We have shared stories of students whose reading scores grew in one year. We continue to watch Metro Nashville's STEM Magnet High School where students who may have gone through a more traditional K-8 schooling, flourish in this type of learning. Start where the educators are most ready and lead from there.  But to start somewhere seems essential.

Suggested Resource for Beginning Early:
Spatial Skills: A Neglected Dimension of Early STEM Education 

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.

Photo by delphinmedia courtesy of Pixabay

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