School Climate & Safety Opinion

When Innovative Schools Don’t Narrowly Define STEM

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 26, 2016 5 min read
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The US Department of Education sent a letter to states, school districts and schools that encouraged the use of federal dollars for developing, implementing and expanding STEM classes for the 2016-2017 school year. The intention is not only to support those STEM classes, but to target poor students, students of color and other underserved students. According to a USNews.com article, Secretary of Education John King said:

Too often many of our students, especially those who are most vulnerable, do not have equitable access to high-quality STEM and computer science opportunities, which are part of a well-rounded education and can change the course of a child’s life...We are committed to ensuring that all students have the same opportunities to access a rigorous and challenging education.

We applaud the Secretary’s leadership on this issue but offer a caution about a narrow definition of STEM as the advancement, only, of science, technology, engineering, and math. If those four content areas are advanced without a concomitant shift within the entire educational system, we stand to lose the full potential offered by STEM and this decade. A slew of unintended consequences may occur. The most serious is the contribution to a widening achievement gap for the very students Secretary King is trying to include. STEM can end up simply increasing opportunity for those students who are achieving well already. That is valuable, surely, but it could be so much more. What a lost moment it could be.

STEM Opens a Window
STEM opens a window into how teaching and learning can look in the 21st century. STEM, now a catchword, when viewed as a reason for shifting the way teaching and learning takes place, includes the arts, the humanities, and yes, physical education. We have written about this often. With frustration, we still find policymakers and field professionals hold a limited view of the need for STEM and act as if it is something that can stand separately. In the world, these subjects are inherently connected and as they are practiced they are interdependent. Science relies on math, technology, and engineering. Teaching these subjects in disconnected silos, even if meritoriously beginning in kindergarten, does little to invite investigation by those not confident in their ability to excel in these subjects, and does little to create relevance for these subjects in our lives.

Teachers have been encouraged to become experts in their subjects. Most have little experience as professional practitioners in the fields outside of school. So, business and higher education partnerships are essential. We do not mean partnerships that provide money. Rather, we mean partnerships that live and work together to provide support and learning to adults and students alike. Examples can be found across the country in schools engaged in a true STEM shift. In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, at Stratford Magnet High School, partnerships are essential to the development and growing implementation of the education offered to their students. From their website:

The Academy of National Safety and Security Technologies

  • Darkstar Design
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Junior Achievement
  • Nashville State Community College
  • Nashville Software School
  • Nashville Technology Council
  • Tennessee Law Enforcement
  • Tennessee State University
  • Willis Group

The Academy of Science and Engineering

  • Adventure Science Center
  • ACE Mentors
  • Army Corps of Engineers
  • Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, Inc.
  • Cardio Lab
  • Laurene McLemore, Educational Consultant
  • Nissan North America
  • Urban Green Lab
  • Universal Robotics
  • Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach
  • Wright Industries

Vanderbilt University, for example, works directly with teachers and students in their high school classrooms, to apply the subjects taught to actual problem solving. In many cases, the students have solved real problems and have received state and national recognition, some even receiving full scholarships to Vanderbilt. This is true, even, for students who may have arrived in high school without having excelled in the STEM content areas. Teachers receive embedded professional development as they work side-by-side with these professors.

When a school or district is engaged in a STEM shift, the leaders must pull from four specific reservoirs that include STEM knowledge, skills and capacity for coalition building, skill to lead non-mandated change, and passion. This applies to leaders on all levels, including the leading teachers. (Myers & Berkowicz, 2015). A STEM shift begins when

teachers and students working together, across disciplines, on real problems, with different time schedules and performance assessment, when technologies are integral not peripheral, when programs are being created as well as used, when the elementary teacher can’t tell if the lesson is science or reading because it is both, when the science teacher and the art teacher need each other, when the math teacher and the drama coach collaborate on set design, when the walls don’t matter and the doors open up, there is a new school life emerging (Myers & Berkowicz p. 61)

So, with this encouragement from the Secretary to use federal monies to advance STEM, we suggest reframing the suggestion. Take this time to bring together a coalition of students, teachers, leaders, community members, and potential business and higher education partners. Take this time, and the possibility of using federal dollars to investigate and form a vision for STEM centric schools. Perhaps invest in the seedlings already existing in your school where students learn in an environment that

  • integrates subjects to make sense,
  • delivers instruction that motivates, demands collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication
  • requires partnerships for learning that provide authenticity and application for students
  • breaks down the walls between subjects and classrooms
  • blends the advantages of digital tools with the productive power of human collaboration

If this recommendation from the Secretary simply results in a focus on four subjects, an extraordinary opportunity is lost. Begin by building a shared understanding that STEM, as an acronym, represents far more than the four subjects. By changing the way teaching and learning takes place, by empowering and supporting all learners, we will bring more students to the point of ready, courageous enough to step up as high schoolers to say, “I can do this” no matter the subject or career goal. We have seen it happen in those schools who have stepped forward and are ahead of the curve. Students, all of them, are growing in ways that we admire with educators we respect for taking the risk to think and act boldly and systemically. We hope the Secretary’s words encourage many more to join them as STEM shifting pioneers.

Myers, A. & Berkowicz, J. (2015). The STEM Shift. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.