Teaching Opinion

STEM Changes the Learning Experience

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 05, 2015 4 min read
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STEM. Read that acronym and you may be thinking about science, technology, engineering and math. You may also be thinking “What about the humanities and the arts?” And you may be thinking, as a colleague principal recently told us, you are tired of hearing about STEM.

But unpack what STEM offers and without changing its name, remain open to the possibilities this design offers all students and a clearer understanding may arise. Although it is apparent that the world of science, technology, engineering, and math are exploding, the world is also exploding with terrorism, fear, opposition, anger, abuses of all sorts and war. We need science and we need humanity. The good news is they go hand in hand if we chose to make it so. We have an opportunity to rethink school design and meet the college and career needs of students while preparing them with social emotional skills at the same time.

STEM does not mean teaching more. It means teaching differently. It requires project and problem based learning. It requires partnerships with businesses and the health care industry. Science and technology are pushing our lives forward simultaneously. Math, in the service of science, technology, and problem solving, is a partner. New engineers will benefit from innovative design programs supported by the arts and informed by history to break open how we illuminate our homes, play games, communicate and travel.

STEM is Trans-Disciplinary
Engaging students in problem solving requires offering real problems to be solved. Real problems are rarely solved in isolation and never solved without the experiences, innovations, successes and failures that have come before. They require authentic performance assessments that reflect all the skills and information learned. And they require a trans-disciplinary plan that includes and applies all the subjects and skills needed in order to solve the problem.

STEM for All
STEM solves a multitude of problems we face in our schools today. It engages all learners by making learning an interactive, shared, focused, purposeful activity that requires a variety of skills and talents to successfully complete the learning process. In that process, teachers offer students opportunities to learn how to include classmates, consider real problems with investigation, creativity, compassion, and knowledge, and perform their learning and understanding.

No matter the field these students choose for their futures, the school experience will be much more in line with the unknown world in which they will work and live. We do not know the careers that will exist. Nor do we know how those fields that do exist will change. Right now doctors have to become technologically savvy, reading and communicating about x-rays across continents and performing surgery with robots. They are carrying laptops and tablets into exam rooms and electronically sending prescriptions. Many had to learn those skills after their formal education was completed. So STEM also must include the belief that learning never ends, that school is the foundation, and that foundation must remain robust and resilient, ever open to new learning.

STEM requires we teach how to learn, how to share, how to offer welcome, how to remain open and abandon bias, how to express knowledge, how to lead and how to follow. The STEM environment must provide opportunities for teachers to co-design with eachother and with scientists in the filed. Together they co-design real problems with and for students. The process of student learning becomes in the service of solving those problems.

Learn Before Beginning
In this frenetic world of bad news about schools, demand for change makes it is too tempting to take the next new thing and try it. But STEM offers far more than a quick fix. And most importantly, now, STEM is a local decision that will allow for a local design. How refreshing. The best way to begin is to become informed. Thankfully, there are those pioneers who are leading the way and are leaving breadcrumbs to be followed. Also thankfully, this is a local decision; following the breadcrumbs left by others is not meant to replicate a model but to assess what fits into your own local design as it develops.

A STEM designed shift cannot be done by one person. The true first step in understanding what STEM offers is to gather a team from every constituency: the board of education and school leaders, teachers, potential business and higher-ed partners, parents, community members and students. There are schools and districts across the country that have studied STEM, found partners, designed strategic plans, and begun the shift into their own 21st century designs. Nationally, there are regional STEM Hubs that can offer experience and information. For those interested, the Arizona STEM Network offers a STEM Immersion Guide that can be of help in designing a district’s journey forward. But, exploring what STEM really is and can be, is the beginning place.

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