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Engineering the Three Dimensions of STEM Professional Development

At ProjectEngin, we focus on supporting the inclusion of Engineering Design in K-12 education. Much of our initial exposure to teachers, schools, and districts is through requests for workshops. Many such requests involve the magic acronym “STEM”. As a result, our first challenge in structuring impactful workshops is to identify what a school or teacher really means by STEM.  Sometimes it is an adjective – “we want to be a STEM school”, “we have one STEM teacher”, “we do STEM projects”. Sometimes it is a noun, often referring to a phantom new subject or discipline, an additional class period, or a topic viewed as interchangeable with robotics, coding, or 3-D printing. “We do STEM for 20 minutes each week”, “we have STEM in science class”, “we are starting STEM with robotics” are phrases we have heard in various settings.

Most experts agree that STEM should not be treated as the “new science” or, in fact, as an academic discipline at all. It is a way of thinking, collaborating, innovating, and problem-solving that models real-world situations. The Department of Education STEM 2026 report does a good job making this distinction. Further discussion of the need for connections among the component STEM disciplines can be found in STEM Integration in K-12 Education, a report published by the National Academies Press.


As providers of professional development and curriculum design services, STEM means the following to the educators at ProjectEngin:

  1. A learning culture that embraces active problem-solving, not passive transfer of facts

  2. Collaboration across different disciplines versus isolation in academic silos

  3. An opportunity to fail and then move forward versus a “one strike and you’re out” assessment mentality

  4. An ability to present, challenge, and defend ideas versus “death by PowerPoint”

  5. And, most importantly, a focus on process not product

In our professional experience as teachers and engineers, that sounds a lot like Engineering Design and it forms the practices that we follow in our work with teachers and students. We truly believe that the “E” is the key to connections, collaboration, creativity, a problem-solving mentality, and a true STEM learning environment.

In order to maximize the impact of any professional development opportunity we first

need to address where a school is on the spectrum of STEM self-definition and actual implementation. We have been most successful when taking a 3 dimensional view focused on a concept of three concentric layers.

We always works from the outside in, starting with the overall school culture. Depending on where a school is on the “STEM Spectrum”, we work with all teachers and administrators to define a STEM vision, designed to support a unified, collaborative approach. We actually take attendees through a modified version of the Engineering Design Process to help them craft a vision that acknowledges the constraints they have, defines criteria for success, and creates a model for an initiative that is sustainable and realistic. STEM should never be about one teacher, one classroom, one project. If that approach is used, it becomes another “layered-on” experience not an intrinsic part of a commitment to truly educating young people.

A large part of our work focuses on the second layer. STEM does not live in places where desks are in rows, where students sit passively while teachers transmit information, where failure is not an option, or where creativity and collaboration are not valued. The work required to transform the learning space, figuratively and literally, most often falls to the classroom teacher. New curriculum, technology, and resources are doomed to be under-utilized and ineffective if new classroom norms, practices, environments, expectations, and pedagogies are not in place or, at least, developing. That requires that a teacher has a chance to learn through modeling and reflection. We help them transition and evolve by leveraging what they are comfortable with and engaging them in new ways of supporting learning. Most true STEM projects, particularly Engineering Design projects, are active, group-based, and multi-disciplinary. Implementing something on that level requires both teaching topics that are new and teaching them very differently. Failure to acknowledge both most often leads to an unsustainable approach. It is simply too much at once. Our workshops at this level model the classroom environment and practices that will support a STEM approach. Teachers leave equipped with a range of activities and resources that are designed to be easily implemented and that we have constructed to engage students while providing hands-on experience of related scientific concepts.

We always suggest that schools determine that these first two levels are present or developing before tackling the inclusion of more extensive design projects, or actually adopting a more “STEM” curriculum. In our experience, curriculum that is inserted without creating a supportive environment in and out of the individual classroom rarely lasts and it often fails to create a better learning opportunity. Our most intensive work involves collaborating with teachers who have tried some shorter Engineering Design activities in their classroom and are now eager to implement more comprehensive, longer-term Engineering Design projects. That is the innermost dimension of the three layers.  Again, we try to honor the fact that teachers are teaching new material in a new way. We work with them to develop projects that they are comfortable with or help them to adapt our projects to their classes and expertise. We know that it is key to have some level of success with the implementation of that first Engineering Design project. No one expects everything to go perfectly, but we always hope for, and usually achieve, a level of student engagement and enough evidence of better learning to support teacher enthusiasm and confidence.

Although we customize our approach by looking at the three dimensions of the STEM spectrum, we always have two key goals in mind. We always hope to create a better learning experience for students and to develop educators who are advocates and experts in their own professional communities. Both are part of our vision for engineering sustainable STEM programs.


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