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Teaching Profession Opinion

Teaching STEM and Programming—No Experience Needed

By Alexander Kmicikewycz — January 11, 2018 8 min read
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Editor‘s Note: It‘s no secret that when it comes to international comparative examinations in math and science, Singapore is a top achiever. But what leads to their success?Alexander Kmicikewycz, Math and Science Teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, shares what he learned through the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching program.

The eight months I spent in Singapore learning about Singapore’s Applied Learning Programme (ALP) taught me a lot about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. STEM ALP is a two semester course. Students learn the basics of programming through an open-source computer platform during one semester. Then during another semester known as Project Work, they use programming to create solutions and prototypes to address a problem in their community.

The core of Singapore’s ALP success in STEM education is the creation of a supportive, low-stakes learning environment where students and teachers can explore, fail, and revise. Such an environment is critical to foster creative problem solving and Singapore recently made headlines for their success on the Collaborative Problem Solving component of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This program therefore, may have implications on how other schools, districts, and policymakers can establish a successful STEM curriculum in their own countries or regions.

Below are seven steps I’ve identified that led to Singapore’s success in STEM education.

Identify a clear definition, purpose, and approach for STEM education

STEM and the growth of STEAM (putting Art in STEM) education have taken on many forms serving different purposes. Solely having technology for instruction does not mean that students and teachers are actively involved in STEM. The premise and motivation behind the STEM Applied Learning Programme in the context of Singapore’s mainstream education is to generate interest in STEM beyond the secondary level, particularly in the engineering field, with a focus on the economy through design thinking. Inquiry, design thinking, and the integration of various content areas establish the foundation for STEM.

Assess critical thinking across all subjects

STEM education occurs when critical thinking spans all classrooms and content areas. Although direct instruction was a portion of the STEM classes I observed, students were given a programming challenge or were allowed to “play” during this “free time” of exploration. The challenge had appropriate scaffolds and was accessible to all students in the classroom. The teachers provided time for the students to think critically. This general structure can be applied to all STEM classes not just for a class dedicated to programming. Rather than requiring students to follow or memorize a procedure or method, students need to be challenged with finding solutions to novel, complex situations.

An abundance of advanced technology does not define STEM education. Technology constantly evolves and is not the only component of STEM education. Singapore’s STEM Applied Learning Programme allows students to showcase their work and prototypes during class time or after school through school exhibits and also nationally at conferences. Peer assessment is also encouraged because when students assess each other, they think critically by comparing their methods to their peers’ methods.

Train coachable teachers who are ready to fail, reflect, and retry

The most apparent characteristic of the teachers I worked with was their growth mindset. One of the major challenges they faced was a potentially steep learning curve as content might be beyond their educational background. Nearly every teacher expressed concern about teaching the STEM Applied Learning Programme as it required coding. These teachers are usually math, biology, chemistry, or physics teachers. Most teachers did not have an engineering background and did not remember coding from their university years.

But by the end of their training, teachers repeatedly responded that learning the coding was not nearly as bad as they had initially feared. Continuous professional development during protected time throughout the academic year allowed teachers to quickly identify student programming misconceptions and potential problems. This abundance of support ensured that teachers could successfully run a class on their own in the future and students consistently referenced the ability of their teachers to transform STEM material into something that was appealing. These teachers become crucial in shaping the curriculum and purpose of STEM education.

As a STEM program develops at a school or district, it needs to be regularly reassessed to meet the needs of both students and teachers. School and district leaders need to provide that support to build capacity and reach a larger audience. Specialized professional development and support accounting for teachers’ workload of responsibilities and duties are an investment in teachers and will be key to the success of a new STEM program.

Provide a bare minimum framework with reevaluation and reassessment

At its foundation, the STEM Applied Learning Programme has a framework for all teachers. The Ministry of Education partners participating schools and teachers with a STEM Educator from STEM, Inc., an outside organization. STEM Educators who have expertise in programing, provide training and support for teachers at the school and work with them to develop a curriculum for the school. The STEM Educator initially leads classes, while the STEM Applied Learning Programme teachers have a supporting role in the classroom. As STEM ALP teachers gain more confidence with the material, the STEM Educator’s role in the classroom diminishes. STEM Educators and STEM Applied Learning Programme teachers work together to develop a curriculum with scripted lessons from which teachers can use during the initial stages of independent STEM instruction. This factory model defeats the purpose of design thinking for both teachers and students but it lays the foundation for change, improvement, and personalized learning and gives teachers the confidence to design new curriculum materials in successive iterations of the course.

The constant reevaluation and reassessment of teacher and student needs creates the STEM education. The initially rigid structure relaxes with increasing flexibility and autonomy as a result of greater competency and allows for deviation. The pace and gains with each iteration drive teachers and students toward personalized learning. Within the STEM Applied Learning Programme structure, a second tier of competitions and science fairs meet the needs of students who express greater interest.

Integrate resources and existing curriculum to overcome obstacles

Singaporean teachers often referenced the term “syllabus” when I spoked with them. Formally, the “syllabus” references the subject curriculum prescribed by the Singaporean Ministry of Education. The Cambridge Exams are aligned with this curriculum. Informally, this term was also code for time constraints and demands of adhering to a curriculum while preparing students for the exams. As long as exams exist, content needs to be addressed in the classroom, which raises the issue of time. In order to deliver a successful STEM Applied Learning Programme, schools structured extra time into school teaching timetables or schedules. The concentrated time allotted for the STEM Applied Learning Programme allowed students ample time to work. The longer class period also provides students time for direct instruction and to address challenge problems with a constructivist or inquiry method of learning.

Topics or concepts in one class were consistently reinforced in other classes. For example, topics covered in biology like the pulmonary system, were explicitly integrated into the STEM Applied Learning Programme, and topics in the Applied Learning Program like resistor values and scientific notation, were explicitly integrated into math class. Asking students to write down how two concepts may be related and sharing it with class placed the rigor of developing those connections on the students.

Assign appropriate evaluation metrics

Unlike core academic classes, the STEM Applied Learning Programme courses have no officially assigned grades, relieving some pressure on students. Students still had the challenge of understanding material and how the different programs and components worked within a finite amount of time with a few short multiple-choice, recall knowledge questions about the concepts at the end of each lesson. This low-stakes environment was in contrast to the test-driven demands of the math and science classes, which have a more stringent curriculum. Teacher and student performances and evaluations are not connected to a grade or pass rate on a test.

Collaborate and learn with community partners

Additional partners and collaboration between schools and the local community foster the development of ideas and innovation. Learning does not just take place in classrooms but also in the broader community with experts in the field. For example, students travel to hospitals and nursing homes to learn about the needs of the community through interviews. Teachers cannot be masters of all content areas or have the degree of specialization that can reach students at every level.

Instead, a focus can be placed on the collaborative learning process where students and teachers learn simultaneously from partners. The teacher role becomes extremely important in these settings with teachers serving as the bridge between the experts in the field and the students. The role of the teacher should be leveraged to minimize the gap between the experts and the students. The community can also fill gaps in resources. A simple invitation to an expert in the field to evaluate a group’s proposed solution goes a long way in giving students real feedback.

Conclusion

STEM education is not a new subject; nor is it a new way of thinking. The purpose of STEM education may vary, but cultivating interest and motivation lie at the core of learning any material, not just the individual STEM subjects. STEM education has the ability to provide a spark for our young people if the correct teachers and environment are created so that students can tinker and experiment with their education.

Connect with Alexander and Heather.

Quote image created on Pablo.

Photo by, and used with permission of, the author.

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