- "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
- "Developing" - programs that begin to have potential, but often don't bring people and resources together well enough
- "Realizing" - programs that have the potential to realize a true vision of STEM
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").
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?