Teaching Opinion

STEAMSS - The Emerging Acronym

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 11, 2014 6 min read
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Names matter. Think of the process and interest involved with naming a baby. Consider the battles over changing a district mascot or the time it takes for old names to die in a school district reorganization. Names and identities are so closely tied together.

The nation’s focus on science, technology, engineering and math for the 21st century learning environment is welcome. This is real curricular reform, widespread and bottom up. This is an unmandated movement. Business leaders and school leaders are side by side making schools new. The STEM initiative is making a difference, one school and one district at a time.

STEM is broadening out from a program for smart high school students, to a way to teach and engage all students, even in our elementary schools. 3D printers, handheld technologies, new science labs, the explosion of software...all are magnetically attracting us toward a science-based curriculum. Integrating science, technology, engineering, and math begins to break the previous century’s model of subject matter as separate domains. It shakes loose our minds and our classrooms. This century demands that we engage children in new ways and develop new skills for them. What might have happened in the past as our finest moments now becomes a way of life. Innovative thinkers step forward like never before. Technology of all sorts is transforming the potential for how to teach and learn. It is exciting and energizing for adults and children alike. Whether

  • using a 3-D scanner/printer, a group of elementary school mathematicians learn what volume is in a solid object. The concept, the technology and the teamwork all are part of the story.
  • using Scratch, even younger children discover how to code, plot on a graph, and animate a scenario,
  • physics and trigonometry are an integrated class with a teacher and a local scientist co-teaching
  • high school students work with a university hospital on a biology research project and present posters at the hospital professional development day

STEM integrated learning is what our students will need in order to maneuver in the world in which they will live as adults. It is not only about preparing student to enter these fields; simply living in the 21st and 22nd centuries requires a new kind of thinking.

Teaching differently always carries the threat of a pendulum swing back to silos and subjects. Even those immersed in the Humanities and the Arts will pull back if they aren’t well infused into the shift...but that is for other posts when we write about STEAM. But, because names are important and changes happen so fast we hardly can keep up. So on from STEM and STEAM to STEAMSS.

Embedded in STEM integrated learning activities is the need for focused, intentional developmentally appropriate soft skills. Thus the ‘SS’. There is a level of humility we educators will have to continue to develop. No longer can we teach, for sure, what we know as fact without being willing to accept that we may be wrong. This is true especially in science. In the February 2014 issue of Scientific American there appears a perfect example of this. The article is entitled, “The Proton Radius Problem: Two experiments have come up with two wildly different values for the proton’s radius. What’s going on?” Although steeped in advanced scientific vocabulary, the lesson for us is a foretelling one. In the words of the scientists:

The two of us (Jan C. Bernauer and Randolf Pohl), along with our colleagues, have made the most precise measurements of the radius of the proton to date, using two complementary experiments. When we began the exercise, we suspected that our results would help add levels of precision to the known size of the proton. We were wrong. Our measurements of the proton’s radius differ by a huge gulf. The difference is more than five times the uncertainty in either measurement, implying that the probability that this is all due to chance is less than one in a million.

The manner in which these two scientists are grappling with the different and unexpected findings serves as a model of the soft skills needed to be embedded in our 21st century teaching and leading. They abandoned old beliefs and faced the evidence their experiments revealed to them. They worked with that evidence to come to this exciting place: “Four years after the puzzle came to life, physicists have exhausted the straightforward explanations. We have begun to dream of more exciting possibilities.” All of us who lead need to embrace the scientists’ frame of reference. It allows for surprise and change and an answer we didn’t anticipate to reveal exciting possibilities.

To propose another view, the Common Core offered possibilities for us but it came to us packaged in rigid and inflexible wrapping, potentially killing its organic and alive content. But, that is a different post...

Soft skills are not science skills. They are human skills needed across subject areas, and fields of study and practice. What author or poet doesn’t know the moment when the life of the story or the poem takes off and the writer becomes only its instrument? We will have to begin teaching in a new and flexible way. The dynamic nature of facts today causes us to step away from dealing with absolutes and into possibilities. We have not been taught nor trained in this way of thinking. For many, the tests of our work with the students remain steeped in “fact”. Steps into the abyss of ‘maybe’ are certainly courageous and, we contend, necessary. We need to create classrooms of inquiry where we guide and provide rather talk and test. Many have already arrived at that practice. We celebrate those among us who understand perspective and already:

  • teach about Manifest Destiny from the settlers’ perspective as well as that of the Native Americans
  • teach the history of WWII through art and the movie The Monuments Men
  • teach history, art, politics, technology, and medicine through a project based upon a classmate’s illness
  • demonstrate the relationship between expression of thought, opinion, and fact across all curricula

We will have to develop the ability to step away from long held beliefs and follow what the evidence presents, knowing deeply that it, too, might not be an enduring fact, but simply the one we know to be true in the present. In a way, that is the gift science is giving us now. The gift of uncertainty causes solid ground to become softer. The capacity of these two scientists, as they demonstrate their use of essential soft-skills, serves as a suggestion for us.

No matter the subject or arena, whether in teaching, learning, negotiating, or simply trying to make sense of the news, we need to develop a practice of recognizing the frame within which we receive and process information. We become more open to examine the difference between our preconceptions and what is presenting itself as true. Once we demonstrate to our students by our actions and the nature of our thinking, planning, and teaching that we, too, are searchers and learners, it will prepare them for their lives as 21st century adults.

If you are saying that we can’t make that shift because the tests don’t allow for that. Think again. The New York Times reported:

The president of the College Board, David Coleman, criticized his own test, the SAT, and its main rival, the ACT, saying that both had “become disconnected from the work of our high schools.”

Well, we must have changed some already. David Coleman said so.

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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.