January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

STEM Happens

Posted: Monday, April 1st, 2013

by Rick Pomeroy

Just last week, I had the pleasure of visiting several elementary schools and one high school in Maryland that shared the focus of incorporating STEM as a regular part of their daily curriculum. What was most impressive to me was not the science and math courses that the students were taking, nor the fact that the students at all grade levels appeared to use technology effortlessly. Instead, it was the collaboration of the faculty, staff and administrators and their seemingly universal commitment to doing things differently. The efforts to prepare students to work confidently in an increasingly digital world were evident everywhere I visited and there was a definite feeling of dynamic progress. The reason I found this so impressive is that after countless hours spent participating in STEM Task Force Meetings, STEM Summits, STEM-focused conferences, and NGSS review sessions it was clear to me that the most important factor in the success of these programs was not the technology or content, but the people involved.

Borrowing from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I am not sure I can tell you exactly what STEM is but “I know it when I see it”. This phrase clearly describes my experiences last week. I could definitely see STEM but I don’t think I could pinpoint any one (or ten) thing(s) that they were doing that would be defined as STEM-specific curriculum.

For example, elementary school students were using a wide variety of technological tools from kindergarten class to sixth grade simply as universal tools for learning. SmartBoards® allowed kindergarteners to drag and drop pictures of objects that started with “B”, and others used tablets to write and hear the sounds of letters. Fourth graders used simple probes to measure the temperature of compost being “cooked” in 2-liter soda bottles during a science lessons in anticipation of starting a composting project in their school cafeteria. In a third grade math classroom, students measured the circumference of different wheels using rulers and sticky spots to decide which would go further in one full revolution. What I didn’t realize until I visited the STEM classroom was that those students were also building little electric cars, trying to make the fastest car using a common set of materials. The math lesson on circles preceded the car-building activity, making the application of what they had learned a simple process. The key to me was not that they were doing a math lesson on circles but that the lesson from math was so easily applied in the race-car building because the teachers collaborated across grades and disciplines.

My visit to the high school was equally impressive. At this school of 2000 students, 100 in each of the four grade levels had chosen to take part in the STEM academy that included participation in a class each year such as STEM policy or community service. In addition, each student was expected to take part in an internship with a local business or local organization where they gained real world experience. Why did this make such an impression on me? Because the lead teachers for these STEM classes were the English and history teachers. Yes, there were math, science, and engineering teachers in the STEM academy, but the collaboration by all of the teachers across the different subject areas made the entire process more seamless than something special. Each of these teachers shared that they taught traditional classes for the entire student body and one class for the STEM academy, and that all of their students benefited from this school wide collaboration.

Finally, in all of the schools the students I met were confident about what they were doing and anxious to continue their pursuits. The high school students had summer internship plans and had applied to and been accepted by various colleges and universities. They had even won a national competition, put on by the Verizon Foundation, to develop a Smartphone App specifically for high school students.

Clearly, STEM can happen systemically, but only through purposeful collaboration across disciplines. Many of the activities that students were doing could have easily been done without the special technology. For example, felt boards could be used for word sorting, thermometers for measuring the heat produced by composting. Students can do internships without any special technology. What made the experience in the Maryland schools different was the sense of utilizing authentic scientific practices and tools to engage in collaborative problem solving in real world situations. The faculty were collaborating to ensure students heard a common message about the importance of collaboration, solving real world problems, and doing so within the specific confines of their own communities. Just as our ever-growing technological world demands experts in all areas, our students need the talents and expertise of all curriculum areas to be successful in their future careers.

Based on my experiences, our typical bureaucratic approach to implementing STEM may be headed in the wrong direction. I’d like to go out on a limb and suggest that making our current curriculum STEM-centric is probably going to be much easier than modifying what and how we currently teach to a new set of Standards based on the NGSS.  To prepare collaborative, problem solving citizens, we first need to develop and model those skills amongst ourselves as educators.

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Written by Rick Pomeroy

Rick Pomeroy

Rick Pomeroy is science education lecturer/supervisor in the School of Education, University of California Davis.

One Response

  1. Thank you Rick Pomeroy for so eloquently seaming together age-old wisdom with STEM innovation in education. I wholeheartedly agree that the magic of tomorrow is made by working collaboratively today.

    I am delighted that Rick had the opportunity to see the great work happening in Maryland. But in California we have Rick Pomeroy, and many leaders like him who have the vision to allow California to invent the future of STEM education.

    Best,
    Marcella Klein Williams
    Chief Education Officer
    California STEM Learning Network

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