STEM education: Moving from a slogan to constructive innovation

By Jean Kugler
ONET Innovation Specialist

Educators and policymakers have been focusing their efforts to foster greater STEM expertise through increasing STEM participation, student engagement, quality and capacity.

STEM Professional Development Series

Please visit bit.ly/STEMseries for a detailed breakdown of the STEM Professional Development Series. Jean Kugler, ONET Innovation Specialist, may be reached at jean.kugler@escco.org. For more information on STEM education, policies, programs, or practices, please read The Case for STEM Education by Rodger W. Bybee (NSTA Press, 2013).

Legislation has centered on increasing the participation of underrepresented populations in STEM; enhancing the quality of professionals teaching STEM subjects; supporting STEM-related activities to engage students of all ages; and promoting and retaining a domestic and international STEM workforce.¬†STEM has become one of the new and widely used buzzwords applied to schools, programs, courses, competitions, curriculum, workshops, resources and workforce development. Technically speaking, STEM stands for the academic and professional disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics with the term STEM Education used to relate to the teaching and learning in these four fields, including educational activities across all grade levels in both formal and informal settings. Even with all of the dialogue around STEM education, there is a lack of a nationally agreed upon definition for STEM education which has led to some ambiguity about the implementation of STEM. To address this dilemma, educators should consider some directions for STEM education. In the context of an educator’s work, what is their perspective of STEM, where are they now and what should the implementation of STEM education achieve?

If an educator is just beginning to examine ways to improve STEM in the school/district, perhaps a basic understanding of the four STEM subjects is the place to begin. The National Research Council has defined the four STEM subjects separately as:

  1. Science is the study of the natural world, including the laws of nature associated with physics, chemistry, and biology and the treatment or application of facts, principles, concepts or conventions associated with these disciplines.
  2. Technology comprises the entire system of people and organizations, knowledge, processes, and devices that go into creating and operating technological artifacts, as well as the artifacts themselves.
  3. Engineering is a body of knowledge about the design and creation of products and a process for solving problems. Engineering utilizes concepts in science and mathematics and technological tools.
  4. Mathematics is the study of patterns and relationships among quantities, numbers and shapes. Mathematics includes theoretical mathematics and applied mathematics.

While there seems to be some clarity about the “S” and the “M” through understanding and articulation of the Common Core and the New Ohio Science Content Standards; there is also less familiarity with the “T” and “E” of the STEM acronym. All four components of the acronym have equal importance when considering STEM education. At the start of the journey into STEM education, it’s necessary to focus first on improving the separate disciplines or incorporating a discipline, such as engineering, that is not part of the current curriculum.

Quality STEM education depends not only upon quality teaching and learning of the individual subjects but a correlation of interdisciplinary themes. An examination of integration and levels of integration may be a next step in strengthening STEM. Are there ways to coordinate, complement, correlate, connect and/or combine two or more STEM disciplines, themes, content, processes, to provide students with rigorous learning experiences where they can learn key academic content and practice 21st century skills? Are there opportunities for implementing curriculum and instruction that is trans-disciplinary such as project-based learning (PBL)?

Schools and districts just beginning to examine STEM education in the context of their current programs and curriculum will want to determine where to start and on what scale. Perhaps, educators will want to examine the approaches taken by the seven Innovative Program Grant Awardees implementing STEM innovations through RttT.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District designated five K-8 STEM schools focusing on a STEM academic approach schoolwide to increase student achievement. Interdisciplinary project-based learning, combined with teacher professional development and the technology of the Fab Lab, form the foundation for the STEM model. Their Design Principles, capstone projects, STEM events and resources can be found at https://sites.google.com/a/mc2stemhs.net/pk8-stem-schools/home.

Kenston Local Schools is developing and implementing instructional programs related to their sustainable energy program K-12.  Check out the real time data from their wind turbine and solar energy panels at http://www.kw4ed.org/kenston/Index.aspx. William Taft Elementary School, (Cincinnati Public Schools) http://taftelementary.cps-k12.org/stem.aspx, has been building communication about STEM education, implementing STEM-related activities and increasing partnerships. Buckeye Local Schools began their work at the Intermediate level, fostering staff development and STEM leadership with some of these activities provided through the Ohio STEM Learning Network (OSLN) Akron hub http://www.osln.org/2013/08/to-create-digitally-literate-students-akron-trains-teachers/. Dublin City Schools opened their new Biomedical Academy at Dublin Scioto High School, joining other STEM academies offered through the district (Energy and the Environmental Academy & Engineering Academy) http://www.thisweeknews.com/content/stories/dublin/news/2013/01/29/dublins-biomedical-research-academy-begins-in-fall.html. The MAD for STEM consortium of schools is implementing Project Lead the Way, Gateway to Technology and Engineering is Elementary programs in their districts. These grant recipients established a plan for STEM education and continue to implement, evaluate and refine their approaches to improving STEM education for their students.

With the publication of Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 (National Academies Press, 2010), educators have become more aware of national statistics indicating that districts must prepare students differently for the global workforce. Clearly, the value of STEM education will be greater than the sum of its parts.

The Educational Service Center of Central Ohio is currently offering a STEM Professional Development Series to prepare educators and education leaders to deepen their understanding of STEM content, practices and pedagogy and strengthen the infrastructure for supporting STEM instruction and engagement.