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Budging the Boulder – Changing STEM education from the Bottom Up

I have been in the world of STEM education for quite some time and I am happy to report that there is universal consensus that (a) meaningful, connected STEM education is critical and (b) 20th century teaching is inadequate for the 21st century world our students will live in. I have not encountered anyone who isn’t pretty sure both things are true in my journeys both nationally and internationally over the past few years. Yet most science and math classrooms and curricula are deeply entrenched in textbooks and traditions and have not changed substantially since the 1950s. Why?

It is simply a question of research not translating to practice and strategy not valuing tactics. As much as classroom teachers try to embrace a vision of what education should look like, they are faced with a reality centered on day-to-day tactical decisions. Rigid, formulaic assessments drive many curricular choices and they create a need for tactics centered on the goal of “covering” the material. Vision is lost in the world of “coverage”, daily lesson plans, and chapters in textbooks. It simply comes down to the basic fact that if you don’t change what happens in the classroom, you can’t expect different results.

Strategy without any thought of tactics is simply a vision without a hope of creating meaningful change. Given the inertia of our modern educational system it is unlikely that broad revolutionary change will move beyond an idea. There are far too many variables, interests, and resource disparities for that to happen. Strategic thinking is critical in formulating a goal of a STEM literate, innovative culture, but the classroom teacher needs tactics. He or she deals with too many issues, individuals, and ideas every day to magically shift the classroom culture and methodology to one more in tune with the 21st century. Change in the classroom needs to be evolutionary, budging the boulder bit by bit until the inertia in the system takes over and it keeps going, becoming part of our educational culture.  Teachers know the reality of the classroom and broad initiatives that ignore that are unlikely to create meaningful change. Top-down strategy and vision needs to be supported by bottom-up tactics. Failure to recognize that equates to failure to educate.

ProjectEngin is founded on the premise that meaningful change in education is evolutionary. Changing one part of a curriculum, pedagogy, or classroom culture and working to truly implement that change is far more likely to stick than approaches that create radically new classroom environments. Discounting a teacher’s craft, expertise, and experience makes no sense. Building on it and adding to it leads to internal advocacy and a true commitment to vision.

How do you create big shifts from small changes? Some of the things we have had success with are as follows:

  1. Modularize. Focus on some of the “techniques” of engineering and design thinking in the context of projects and labs you already do. Use some matrix decision making, encourage divergent and creative thinking, ask students to present findings using a platform they are comfortable with such as a blog or video. Take one part of the old out and try just one new thing until it works for you and your students. It is pretty much guaranteed to show up again in another project or activity.

  2. Stress Synergy. Use a “jigsaw” approach to encourage students to become “experts” in a particular field or subject. Divide the work and research up and have groups or individuals share. It is a much more real world approach. No one is expert in everything and modern corporations rely on teams of individuals with various skills and backgrounds. Stress the concept of synergy and make it the biggest benefit of learning as part of a class as opposed to individually. Plus research has shown that giving student work an audience of more than one (i.e. the teacher) supports ownership and increased effort. You can cover more material, make more connections, and probably also learn something yourself.

  3. Fail. Encourage low-tech prototyping as a way to visualize ideas and connections. The use of craft-type materials with a low cost footprint encourages students to “fail early and fail often”. It brings creative kids into the mix and helps to develop spatial reasoning.

  4. Step away from the script! Banish the textbook-scripted Scientific Method from your classroom. Stress the idea of Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning. Highlight the observation and research involved in making a claim, the creativity and methodology in collecting and developing supporting evidence, and the systems thinking, causality, and communication involved in explaining results. Life does not come with a packaged “Scientific Method” or even an “Engineering Design Process”. As teachers, we need to stop spreading that myth.

  5. Live in the Real World. Make it REAL! The students in your classroom live in a highly designed world, yet we spend very little time studying it. Continually stress that science is the answer to the “why” questions but engineering focusses on “how” we can solve problems. The result is technology. Too many science teachers speak of the need or the imperative to “do” STEM. You are STEM, you teach students about the why every day. All you need to do is bring in the real world and the “how”. Connecting to the real world empowers students to see that there are solutions to the many challenges they will face. It can be as easy as a video, a visit from a local expert, a TED talk, or just a walk around your school whenever you spot a connection. Those connections will lead to more and your classroom and the real world will blend together.

Most importantly – DO NOT TRY TO DO EVERYTHING AT ONCE!! It won’t work. Instead of engagement you will have chaos and no one thrives in that kind of environment. Take a cue from nature and the science that you teach – think evolution not revolution.

We can’t budge the boulder of the educational system without taking that first step. ProjectEngin believes that the first step happens in the classroom, not at school board meetings or in university research environments. Every physics student knows that inertia makes it hard to get things moving in a new direction. But they also know it can make it impossible to stop them once they are rolling in the right direction. Teachers need to believe that they are the key to the change in STEM education and take those first tactical steps. If we all push a little bit, we can budge the boulder.


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