As a teacher, parent, member of your community, and even a citizen of this country, ask yourself this question: What type of students do you want our schools producing? Chances are, that in your head right now, you are sorting through adjectives like prepared, creative, and confident. As a beginning teacher, I thought as long as I taught the material in my book and a certain percentage of my students were passing standardized tests, I was preparing my students for the real-world problems that they would face. Then I began working with STEM projects and my view of my responsibilities as a teacher totally changed.
I remember walking into my principal’s office and saying, “I’ve been doing this all wrong.” That revelation came to me because I had the opportunity to coach a Science team that built STEM projects—and I loved the enthusiasm and commitment the students exhibited. However, these experiences were occurring after school and I wasn’t allowing those inspiring and impactful qualities to find their way into my classes. So, at that point I decided to start using STEM projects in my class.
I know there is a big push right now in education to address the 4 Cs I think that is a great foundation to build any case for a STEM program; however, I also believe that through a strong STEM program in your school, you can address 8 Cs.
For starters, let’s look at the 4 Cs that I believe these two ideologies have in common. STEM creates critical thinkers and problem solvers. By introducing students—at a young age—to the methods of problem solving and the scientific methods, we show students that these strategies apply to most problems in their everyday lives. A true understanding of the STEM subjects makes students aware of the happenings around them. Students are taught to identify and analyze simply by using their senses and observations.
Students are taught and encouraged how to take what they find and communicate this with friends, teachers, and parents. This can be done in a variety of ways but one of my favorites would be through the use of technology like iMovies, presentation apps, or even public service announcements (in upper grades).
With STEM projects, students are taught the importance of collaboration. Problems are presented. Time-lines are laid out. And, just like in life, students will more often than not find that only through productive collaboration with group members will they be successful.
Finally, STEM projects spark creativity. I have assigned upwards of 20 different STEM projects to students in my classes over the years and am always amazed at the different angles students take to try to solve the problem presented. I tell them in class all the time that just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it’s not a great idea. I mean, there was a time before every great invention that no one had ever seen it.
And now on to my next 4 Cs that I believe STEM programs address. I know one of my favorite aspects of using STEM projects in class is the curiosity that they create. Students want to know how their project is going to perform. They want to know how changing one small variable will affect the outcome. They want to be in class when we compete to see who wins. Young kids want to know what happens when I mix chemicals and what they are going to see when they look through the microscope. ALL of this is possible through STEM. In comparison, I don’t ever remember a time when a student WANTED to know what the next page of our science book said.
How about some confidence? A strong STEM program focuses on the idea that the process is the most important part and not the product. Do all students want to have a successful project and be able to communicate wonderful results? Sure! But it’s also okay to fail. I tell my students that it is okay to fail, but never okay not to try. Through these ideas, students focus on the process which more times than not creates a successful project. But if not, it’s okay. We learn from it and go back and address the flaws. We all know the greatest inventors and engineers of all time weren’t usually successful with their first ideas and first attempts.
Let’s make our STEM programs spill out into the community. Let’s let garden clubs come help with school gardens. Let’s let local hospitals have job shadowing partnerships with high school students. Local agriculture co-ops should be involved with greenhouse projects. Colleges in the area could be made aware of the strong engineering, mathematical, medical, architectural, and agricultural minds that are being nourished at our schools. Awareness of needs in the community by the schools and and awareness of the abilities of the school by the community is vital!
Finally, everyone benefits from a little competition. The sooner that students realize that competition is present in every aspect of life, the better prepared they will be. We compete with nearly all of our design process projects and crown one winner for each. It is friendly competition, but it makes students try harder knowing that there are others out there working just as hard, if not harder, for the same prize. My favorite saying? “This isn’t Little League; not everyone is getting a trophy.” If you are the best, you are rewarded. If not, there will be more opportunities to show your abilities later.
So, if my 8 C’s of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, curiosity, confidence, community and competition sound like qualities you would like your schools to be producing in its students, think about starting a STEM program. Here is a link to a site from Arizona STEM Network that could take you from just exploring to full immersion, depending on what you are comfortable with. Remember, just because it wasn’t thought of yet, doesn’t mean it’s not a great idea.
Follow me on Twitter @Mr_LeDune for tweets about our classroom design competitions and feel free to contact any time with questions.