Three ways to put the E into STEM

24th November 2016 at 16:48
engineering, STEM, science, teaching, students
'Schools can struggle to come up with effective ways to teach children about engineering - follow these three steps to bring the subject to life'

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STEM, STEAM, STE2M. Anyway you spell it out, the focus in science education has shifted from individual disciplines to focus on the practices and behaviors of scientists and engineers and how they perform their craft.

A large part of this, and major push in the Next Generation Science Standards and many state standards, is integrating engineering practices. At the same time, teachers frequently struggle with determining what this will look like in their classroom and, once they have a vision, how to make it happen. 

There is a lot of buzz in science education these days surrounding engineering and science practices — ‘maker spaces’ are growing in popularity, place-based learning is encouraged, and problem-based study is touted for the authentic nature of scientific exploration it encourages—and for good reason. If you talk to scientists and engineers you will find that many, present company included, fell in love with science based on a single powerful experience, whether it was a course or instructor, that changed the way we viewed science.

Our passion is sustained by the fact that we get to live that experience everyday. And for generations of students, class experiences resemble the experiences and challenges that we are so addicted to in our research practices.

Authenticity and engagement are why these new pushes are so important. We now have a STEM focus but we have done little to provide teachers with the experiences, support, and connections needed to deliver it in a way that is relevant to student lives, accessible to students of all background, and sustainable.

Addressing these gaps between STEM theory and implementation will require the forging of reciprocal partnerships among stakeholders and breaking down the constraints on learning that occur within the bricks and mortar of a school building.

Scientists need to take some of the burden of implementation and success off our teachers and share it with them. After all, this is our future we are talking about, and I don’t mind investing time and effort to do great things for our future.

One potential avenue for bridging the gaps is through the creation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). I know plenty of scientists, engineers, and business people who are ready and willing to share their time in many ways: tours of labs/programs/businesses, Skype or live speaking with students, mentoring for problem-based learning projects, and even partnering with schools to develop programs, share resources, and write grants.

Unfortunately, what I often see is two bodies moving past one another, each with different goals, roles, and expectations for what partnership means and looks like. To that end I want to share some thoughts about building a foundation to really get the E in your STEM.

1. You (teachers and schools) hold a lot of power in the process. You don’t need to wait for partners to find you, so start with goals internally — gather momentum one person at a time and develop a set of goals for the year (we will build a maker space, we will have a problem based learning exercise each term, we will have a science expo, we will have one engineering project this year). Once the school and teachers have their goals defined, then it is time to:

2. Reach out, near and far — STEM happens in SO MANY PLACES. Find local businesses, practitioners, and industry groups and find out what they are looking for in employees and learn what they are doing. Local colleges, tech schools, universities and engineering programs are a great starting point but not everyone has this in their backyard.

Get on social media and ask for help with your goals, you WILL find people that share your interests and are willing to donate time for service. As you do this, revisit your goals and find how they fit the needs in your area — we are talking home-grown authenticity here.

When you have a list of various possible partners, take time to vet them to make sure you share goals. One of the worst things I have seen is attempts at partnerships where the two parties have their own goals and agendas and nobody comes together to find a “fit”; this is the key to sustainability. 

Note: As you learn and grow, your goals will grow and change with you, keep this in mind as you learn more about the needs in your community.

3. When you find your fit, you can find funding. STEM Ed is HUGE in the funding world. From the National Science Foundation to the Department of Education, state grants, and local and global businesses, there are resources to be found to start this process.

Keep the focus on the kids and connect with the employers in your area to target skills they find attractive. Knowing what you want, and finding partners to add letters of support for the impact of what you are doing will go a long way in standing out any competition for funding! 

Of course this is just one possible avenue, but it is the avenue that I have seen render the most long-term success as well as relevant and authentic learning for students – and that is the whole point of STEM integration. 

Dr Amanda Glaze is assistant professor of middle grades and secondary science education at Georgia Southern University 

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