So What is STEM Anyway?
With the Great Eclipse behind us, it's now time to turn our attention to moving forward as a school with a true STEM culture. But exactly what does that mean?
All of us, no matter what our age, remember our own days in school. The classrooms, the art on the wall, the worksheets, the homework, the tests. In most settings the very structure of education relied on common setup: a teacher with a cache of information, and students whose sole goal is to access and retain that information. The teacher teaches, the student correctly restates, and learning is achieved. Periodically a new innovation like open classrooms, portfolio assessments, or backward design comes along to point to new possibilities, new strategies, to turn the field on its head. But more often than not, often under the immense pressure of standardized testing, new ideas are set aside and the old pattern of teacher-to-student-information-flow resumes. There’s a feeling that nothing really changes.
Now everyone is talking about STEM. But again, what does that mean? We all know the letters: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. Oddly enough though, merely recognizing the acronym could actually cause us to miss the point of what STEM is supposed to be. Busy teachers with good intentions (and enthusiastic STEM coaches) often inject a little math or maybe a building activity to a science lesson and hope that it at least looks like STEM is being achieved. Often they are forced to “do STEM” on designated days. Of course, integrating even small bits of STEM into the process is great, and not to be discouraged, but a true STEM culture may start with throwing away the acronym all together.
In a recent webinar, Cindy Moss, Senior Director of Global STEM Initiatives for Discovery Education, suggested four new words: Students and Teachers Energizing Minds. A little hokey, I agree, but this alludes to the core of what STEM is: encouraging different ways of thinking within the process, and importantly, re-imagining of the roles of student and teacher in the classroom. So let’s break this down.
How does the learning process in a STEM classroom deviate from the traditional? The difference lies in who has the information and in which direction it flows. Which brings me way back to myself as a new teacher. Beasley Middle School. Palatka, Florida.
When I first started as a middle school science teacher, with really no training in either science OR teaching, I was constantly terrified that I was going to be outed as the know-nothing fraud that, frankly, I really was. I knew nothing of earth science, say, beyond what I read in Smithsonian Magazine or saw on old reruns of Star Trek. (Look it up – they were always doing some sort of analysis of other planets with their tricorders.) So I would stay one step ahead – reading ahead to the next chapter and anticipating every possible question that the smartest 6th grader could come up with. And, I realized, I could actually fool them. With a few jokes, a fun lab here and there, and a tough test, everything was fine. I had complete control of the knowledge and the kids had to prove to me that they got it.
My next job - a tech teacher in a magnet school - forced me into an entirely new approach. Technology (particularly in the world of consumer electronics) was - and is of course - constantly changing; there was no way I could be the master of all that evolving content. As soon as I got a new Mac, or a new digital camera (remember those?) for my lab, one of my students would have the next better thing. So I had no choice but to give in and embrace my ignorance.
Instead of compiling lists of content I needed my students to learn, I identified what I wanted my kids to be able to do – design a web page to promote a social justice cause, produce a commercial to sell a product, redesign an outdoor space at the school to accommodate kids in wheelchairs – and simply challenged them to figure it out how to do it, with whatever help I could provide. So we leaned together. We stumbled. We made mistakes. To paraphrase Vanderbilt University professor Peg Cagle, “We fell on our faces magnificently.” But I quickly realized that not always knowing the answer wasn’t a deficiency. When I could finally answer a question with, “I don’t know. Let’s figure it out,” I was free to get out of the way let the learning really begin. My lab was a truly creative space where kids hunkered down to multi-faceted and multi-week projects, self-directed and with giddy purposefulness. (We called it constructivism back then, a term I’d be happy to see come back.)
This is the contrast I see between a traditional class and a STEM class. The questions STUDENTS ask, and the answers that STUDENTS finally come to, must be the driving force in the room. The “correct” answer – TEACHER answers, OUR answers – simply don’t matter.
So to be sure, the roles of students and teachers have to be different in a STEM classroom. Students are active. They wonder, they ask questions, they define problems. They answer thought-provoking questions. They confront complex, real-world problems with their own original solutions. They research, develop, and test theories They fail, and they try again. Indeed they learn to succeed at failure – to see a setback as an opportunity to learn more.
Teachers, on the other hand, must learn to encourage kids to wonder, to ask questions, to define problems. Teachers must ask the thought-provoking questions. They must present the complex, real-world problems. They must give their students the time and the guidance to ask questions and find answers, to research, to test theories, to fail, and to try again. They need to teach kids to succeed at failure – to see a setback as an opportunity to learn and grow and innovate.
And maybe most importantly, they - WE - should not be afraid to get out of the way and let the learning really begin.
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