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What Does it Really Mean to be a STEM School?

At ProjectEngin, we deal with schools, teachers, and classrooms in various stages of defining themselves as “STEM” or sometimes “STEAM”. It can range from one teacher “doing STEM” for 20-30 minutes per week to an entire school claiming to be “certified in STEM”.  Somehow the acronym has created a noun that stands for yet another trend in education. In many schools, making popsicle stick bridges and gum-drop DNA is called STEM.  Others seem to feel that having a computer science or robotics course is the epitome of STEM. In reality, without connections, these things are simply tools, not unlike basic spelling and arithmetic. While many of these activities have value, they do not define a new vision for education.

So just what does it really mean to be a STEM school? Many of our workshops are designed to tackle that topic. We urge educators to begin with a vision and to value the process more than the product, just as we do when designing curriculum. In a sense, we help them to engineer what STEM means for their learning community.  Our work has convinced us that unless it begins with knowing who you teach, how they learn, and the real connections that matter to them, the label “STEM” is just that – a label for another trend.

In many of our workshops, we practice what we preach by urging educators to follow the Engineering Design Process to develop a new culture in their schools and classrooms. It begins with clearly understanding the challenge before you and by identifying the constraints you face and the goals or criteria that matter to you as a learning community. All schools face real limitations in terms of resources, time, and talent. Failing to acknowledge those constraints will result in failure to launch meaningful change. Our advice is to start with what you have and evolve, growing organically in order to value every resource and talent that is already in place. The next step is really the secret sauce to a strong “STEM” vision – determining the criteria that are important to your community. This is where a school creates a STEM identity and vision and this is what creates the value proposition that helps them to realize a unique educational experience. Finally, just as in Engineering, once a challenge is fully defined and delimited, you can begin to generate solutions, prototype, test, reflect, and modify to create a lasting product. This is an ongoing, evolutionary process that should be guided by your constraints, criteria, and vision.

When establishing the criteria that are important to you, resist the tendency to view STEM as a new label that defines something that your school does. Educating young people for the future needs to be defined by “how” not “what”; by skills not by content. Your STEM vision should be about more than uniting 3 or 4 disciplines. It should define the culture of learning at your school. And it needs to be Sustainable, Transdisciplinary, Experiential, and Meaningful if you hope to create lasting and impactful change. Saying that you are going to connect projects to Science and Math, defining Engineering as making things, and seeing Technology as coding and robotics does no more than create yet another discipline, often housed in the confines of the Science department.

Sustainable STEM means that you are going to avoid the trends in order to support a new way of doing things versus just embracing new things. Adding courses and units in coding, computer science, and robotics has value for some students and for certain time frames but they are just new courses and topics. A sustainable STEM vision is based on the value of process over product, skills over specific content. Those of us who were students in the second half of the 20th century can remember spending hours learning how to key punch cards in Fortran IV or program in Basic. Replacing that with the programming skills of the 21st century will not create a sustainable STEM culture in your school.

Transdisciplinary STEM literally and figuratively breaks down the walls, not just encouraging thinking outside of the box, but getting rid of the box. Schools become increasingly siloed places as students move through grade levels. STEM should never be one more of those silos. And it should never be limited to a few disciplines. No big challenge or “wicked” problem is ever solved by examining one aspect or employing one point of view; students need to be taught to think in terms of systems and big, connected pictures. And that needs to be modeled by teachers who are willing to cross classrooms, walls, and halls.

Experiential STEM needs to focus on learning by doing and on the idea that time for reflection, revision, and communication is critical to the process. In our work, we embrace the Engineering Design Process as a framework for meeting challenges by applying and discovering knowledge to craft solutions. We would never expect baseball players to learn how to hit by just reading a book, yet we seem to think that is how formal education should work.  And we don’t necessarily learn well just by doing; we learn when we reflect on what we have done and the effects we have seen due to our actions. Time for analyzing failures, reflecting on impacts, and modifying actions is how we use mistakes to “fail forward”. True experiential learning makes connections backwards and forwards, by applying what has been taught and optimizing understanding through reflecting on the process.

Meaningful STEM should always answer the question “What do I need to learn this? What am I ever going to do with this?” The world is full of challenges, large and small, that will increasingly demand solutions and innovation. Facts are often not valuable in isolation, but they can create countless impacts when applied. We live primarily in a world that we have created in a little over 100 years. Information multiplies at a rate that no one can keep up with, but we insist on transmitting many of the same facts taught in schools decades ago. Learning what to do with that knowledge is the only way to move forward. Innovation rests on engagement and imagination. Replace the popsicle bridge with infrastructure challenges. Connect coding and gum drop DNA to each other and to the amazing lessons we can learn about assembly operations by observing nature. What students do for 6 to 8 hours every day must be meaningful!

Henry Mintzberg, a world-renown business management and strategy expert has been quoted as saying “When the world is predictable you need smart people. When the world is unpredictable you need adaptable people.” The future of the world is in our classrooms today – we owe them a framework for learning and a way of problem-solving, not another label.


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