Thursday, October 31, 2013

STEM Education Programs Continuum

Many school programs billed as STEM don't quite meet the full potential of STEM education (often because they only hit one or two parts of the acronym, Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics). I tend to think of STEM programs on a continuum:
  1. "Beginning" - programs that have less potential to meet the goals I noted in my last post and are often the first steps that schools and districts take
  2.  "Developing" - programs that begin to have potential, but often don't bring people and resources together well enough
  3. "Realizing" - programs that have the potential to realize a true vision of STEM
Now, I want to put out a disclaimer here. I'm not saying your STEM program is terrible if you're doing the first type of activities I mention below. These ideas can be good starting points. I'm arguing that you may not have the impact you hope for without moving further on this continuum. I think a good definition of STEM comes from Tsupros, Kohler, & Hallinen, 2009. STEM is “…an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.”

Beginning STEM Programs

A lot of STEM programs are separate from the core school curriculum:
  • Students build with LEGOs(R) or create paper towers in after school STEM clubs. 
  • Teachers rotate bins of materials across classrooms, containing equipment such as blocks, Tinker Toys, LEGOs, K'Nex, marble runs, dominoes, Zoobs (R), gears, Trio sets (R), Katie Kubes (R), tangrams, Magnatiles (R), Keva Structures (R), etc. 
  • STEM is only done in tech ed classes, not linked to other subject areas (Tech Ed teacher to me, "You can't design and test rockets in science, we do that in my class").
There is also a problem of purchasing programs that are labeled as STEM, but don't really fit the bill. I have seen one boxed program, for example, on a few lists of good STEM programs. This program does not have sufficient scientific reading material, in-depth inquiry-based projects, connections to real community problems, or adequate mathematics learning to be considered STEM.

I just read a quote from a superintendent about a county STEM forum that shows a common misconception: "Kids learn when they touch and feel it." What exactly are they learning? If you're just building a bridge with Dots candy and toothpicks to see whose can hold the most weight, it might be fun, but you're not really learning any science or math content (okay, maybe some spatial reasoning). Those math and science connections have to be made EXPLICIT, which is not just plugging numbers into a formula or mentioning gravity when discussing rockets (see this article from ASEE).

Developing STEM Programs

To be considered a "developing" STEM program, I would argue that you actually need these math and science connections. You need teachers from all STEM disciplines (and ideally literacy, social studies and art too) coming together to design projects. It might not be perfect, but at least one integrated unit should have happened, with plans for more. At the elementary level, one teacher could make these connections in his/her classroom, but I see many schools strictly separating out science, reading, writing, art, and mathematics time. Real life and good learning does not artificially separate these subjects! Those silos and scheduling walls must be broken down to do STEM well. Programs such as Engineering is Elementary (EiE) and Project Lead the Way (PLTW) might be considered "developing" if they are not their own separate gig--isolated from other subjects in elementary and only found in tech ed in secondary. Though, with extra work, there is the potential for them to be linked to high-quality, integrated work, and end up in the following, "realizing" category.  

Youth Apprenticeship job programs are another type of venue for STEM learning. They're a great idea that can include real-world, hands-on experiences. The problem is that students usually take math, science, English, etc. for half the day and these core classes often have no explicit connection to the apprenticeship work. Core teachers just go with the regular material, and students are left on their own to transfer that learning to their job experience (note: they can't do that well - see Bransford). I've heard that some programs do well at linking the classroom learning to the real-world job experiences/learning -- do you know of any? I'd love to observe one in action. 

Realizing STEM Program

I think the STEM Academy in Fond du Lac, WI has some potential to be called, "realizing." As shown in this news article, they have a fabulous partnership with Mercury Marine. They brought in their community to discuss what skills students need to develop--great planning. It appears that interdisciplinary, project-based work will be the norm, though I'll have to go check it out myself next time I'm up there. A question that I have though - why is it a charter school instead of being embedded into an existing school? Why are there no STEM-themed schools that aren't charter schools in Wisconsin?

Edutopia continues to be the king and queen of progressive education excellence. They provide a lot of specific details about MC^2 STEM High School in Ohio. Students do 10 week, interdisciplinary units that connect all subjects and result in a capstone project! These projects often involve connections to STEM companies and allow students to follow their passions. I also really like their focus on mastery-based learning. Our traditional means of assessment (i.e., fact and procedure-based instead of performance-based) do students a disservice in STEM.

Where is your STEM program at?  How could you improve it to have greater potential for engaging non-traditional students and increasing the competence of all students in math and science, as well as engineering and technology?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

STEM Education Programs - What Really Makes It STEM?

Within my barrage of emails, I constantly hear about another new school or district STEM program. I see the STEM label being put on such a wide variety of programs that I worry it will lose its power and potential. In fact, STEM is sometimes a rebranding of what's already being done, and when improved results aren't forthcoming, it could be labeled a failure. So, I wanted to put out some ideas to consider when creating STEM programs and note some common mistakes in this process. Next time I'll put forth a framework for a continuum of STEM programming--from little potential for real change to large potential for success.

What Are Your Goals?

First, you need to spell out your specific goals for a STEM program and how you'll determine if you met those goals. Here are some of the common goals along with potential challenges with them:
1) It will help build tomorrow's workforce.
This idea is important, but problematic. Do you know the labor trends in your region? Do you have data on careers your students end up going into? Unless you're using a source such as the NSC, how will you know you're successful? I linked to this STEM article last time, but I think it bears repeating that STEM isn't just about jobs (though that's important), it's about creativity and allowing students to explore their passions. It's about a STEM literate populace who can implement design thinking and systematic, team-based problem solving in any profession.
2) It will get students excited about school and learning.
I like this goal, and I think STEM has this potential if done well.  But, if STEM is only an elective or after school program, it's not going to engage many students that wouldn't have been otherwise--they chose to be there. On another note, many educators claim that creating "real-world" STEM connections will motivate students. I'm not so sure. The vast majority of my 8th graders were not thinking seriously about their future career. They were thinking about the boy/girl in 1st period. They were often motivated by an interesting, challenging, collaborative task, not necessarily the so-called "real-world" nature of it (see Dan Meyer's blog for more along these lines). 
3) It will help students learn more mathematics and science (and do better on those tests).
Yes, it can. The problem is that mathematics and science content must be brought in explicitly. Students are not good at transferring knowledge from one subject to another. Most teachers were not taught this way and are not proficient at teaching in this way. Who is teaching STEM? Some STEM programs that I see are taught by tech ed teachers who were not trained as math or science teachers, just as other programs are taught by math and science teachers weren't trained to bring in engineering connections. STEM has to be an integrated and valid part of the core curriculum for it to be successful with this goal.
4) It will attract girls and minorities to STEM fields.
I think this goal is extremely important, but I don't see evidence that it's happening yet. This problem is complex and takes concerted effort to really be successful. For example, I like the idea of Goldieblox. There is a storyline given that young girls could relate to and there are real engineering principles involved in the designing girls do with the toy. But, my daughter put it together once and was done with it. It didn't connect to her personally or to the relationship-type play that she enjoys.  With minority and female students, they often lack role models and leaders in STEM. You have to be willing to work hard to find (or cultivate) some.
Simply building things won't cut it; having students get paid for things they design and build might help. Giving a real-world scenario won't cut it; having students go out and meet the family for whom they're building a ramp for their handicap child might help.
5) It will keep us "competitive." 
It might seem that everybody is starting a STEM program. If you work in a state or district with open enrollment, that could be a good reason to move forward. It's still essential to take the time to consider the needs of your unique community and include them in the planning (with real partnerships, they're also often a great source of financial and material support). It might make more sense to emphasize manufacturing engineering than software engineering, or mining engineering rather than electrical engineering. Even if you decide on a canned curriculum or program, putting in the extra effort to tailor the projects to your community can help build engagement and involvement.

Common Mistakes
1) Inadequate teacher understanding - I have worked with a few teachers from a district that began a "STEM" initiative, but six months in they still had little sense of what STEM really meant. High quality professional development that includes ongoing coaching and collaboration is essential; a couple workshops, even those containing some good, hands-on activities, won't cut it.
2) Adopting a program = STEM - I think programs like PLTW and EiE have potential, but adopting them doesn't necessarily equal STEM education. They are both frequently used devoid of substantive connections to mathematics and science. Students building something doesn't make it STEM.
3) Housing it only in tech ed - As with the above problem, when you house STEM only within the technology education department, you are much less likely to have effective connections to science and mathematics. Also, many students will likely not be part of it beyond one required semester.
4) Not creating or supporting teacher leaders - You really need someone on site and at a close grade level to effectively lead collaboration and directly support other teachers. Ideally, this person would also have at least a period per day to coach others, modeling lessons and observing classes.
5) Only doing STEM after school - While an after school STEM program is a fine idea, you will only get the same students who would have showed up for science or engineering club anyway. There will be few girls, few minorities, and few children who have to ride the bus because their parents can't pick them up.

I'm sure there are more possible goals and other common mistakes, what else should we all be considering here? 

My next post will discuss the continuum of programs, with varying potential for successfully rocking the STEM boat...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

STEM Education Grants

Welcome to my blog on STEM education!

For my first post on this blog, I thought I’d write about something frequently on my mind as a STEM educator—finding grants for projects. First, check out this list of grants that will actually work for Wisconsin educators. Many grant sites have links to all sorts of junk that doesn’t really apply in Wisconsin or to typical teachers. I didn't. Did I miss any good sources? 

In writing grants, I have five main pieces of advice:
1) Create a Real Needs Statement
Don't just write down a bunch of data here. While some numbers might make sense, a story is much more compelling.  I really like this grants story found on Edutopia.  It does a nice job of making the need for new technology real. Also, don’t focus too much on the standard need of preparing for 21st century jobs. That’s obvious. STEM education has a lot more going for it, as seen in this article from Madison Magazine. STEM has the potential to really connect with students’ hearts and minds, and that deserves attention. 

2) Create a project that is actually innovative
I hear teachers say, “I want a SMART board. I want iPads/Chromebooks. I want probeware.” Well, so does everyone else. Yes, funders likely agree that these tools are great for engaging students, but you need meatier innovation than that. I like the concept of the Making the Future grant idea from Cognizant.  Share a vision of the future in your grant. If your school or classroom could look like anything, what would that be? Share that amazing vision in your grant! Each grant will likely only be one piece of that vision, but funders like to be linked to the school/classroom of the future. Finally, consider how your project could be innovative not only in topic, but in audience served (community LEGO night), delivery methods (football game jumbotron?), and partnerships created (see next). 

3) Partner Up
Having only your school/district name on a grant is a potential red light for funders that your project is not going anywhere big. You want to show that your project is linking to your community, to businesses, to other schools. In grant reviewer speak, links = it’s going to have a real impact and it’s going to be sustainable. Say you’re asking for probeware. Discuss how a local scientist has volunteered to come help the students use the equipment (for example, water quality is tested everywhere). You want a 3-D printer. Discuss how an engineer at a local manufacturing facility is going to come in a talk about the future of manufacturing, which doesn’t take place in a dingy shop; faculty and students from the local tech college are often eager partners too. Ideally, you'll be able to show partners how it will be a two-way street.

4) Measure and Share Success
Navigating the data morass can be a struggle in education. But, understandably, grant agencies want some real proof that their money made an impact. In Wisconsin, we have a handy new tool, WISEdash, that includes post-secondary enrollment, ACT and AP scores going back a few years. It’s not likely your new STEM program will show growth in those areas in one year, but perhaps in a three year project.  In one year, you can show increased enrollment, hours of teacher training, changes in teacher instruction/curriculum, records of meetings with partners, and pre-post surveys on student interest in STEM or teachers’ understanding of STEM. If you use a valid and reliable survey, you’ll really wow them (like this one on science teaching efficacy).  Additionally, when you begin to see success, you need to share it widely; be sure to mention how you’ll showcase the funding agency or the partnership in those publicity pieces.

5) It takes effort, don’t give up. 
So, you put 20 hours into writing your grant outside of your normal work hours, because, of course, you’re an educator and that’s how it works. And, then you don’t get it. Don’t cry and give up (see Dweck’s mindset research).  You can modify and send the same basic letter or proposal to a lot of places.  Send it to local businesses.  Be persistent!

Any further grant stories or suggestions you'd like to share?  Add them to the comments below...