Working Around the Roadblocks to STEM

We all know the statistics about jobs in the field of STEM. We have all heard of the importance of the 21st century skills that come along with a strong STEM program in our schools. I don’t think anyone would argue the idea that today’s students--and our society as a whole--could seriously benefit from the qualities fostered by STEM education. So with all of this knowledge, why isn’t everyone on board? I get the opportunity to speak on the benefits of STEM at a multitude of conferences and get to see the trepidation on the faces of educators as they begin this journey. Through many conversations, I hear many of the same roadblocks being thrown up. So, let’s address these!

First of all, let’s not confuse the meaning of words. Technology is not necessarily what you think it is. Technology is simply the application of science. It does not have to be robots and software and drones and virtual reality. Don’t get me wrong, it can absolutely be that if you choose. I like to think of the technology in STEM to be those projects that are made with knowledge of scientific concepts and that also address the real world problem that has been presented. Let’s take for example a problem presented that calls for the building of a water filter for making dirty water potable. This does not require robots and computers. It requires the knowledge and application of scientific concepts. This is technology! Let’s make sure we are all clear on this. Technology, no matter the form, won’t make your class any better; however, using technology to make learning relevant can!

People also feel they are unfamiliar with engineering processes. I could definitely be writing myself out of some job opportunities, but I think you all need to know this. You do these processes each and every time you face a problem, or at least you should. What do you do when you face a major problem? Do you first think about it? Then you think about solutions? Then you decide on one of your possible solutions? And try your possible solution? Next you look at the outcome and decide if it worked? Finally, if it works, your problem is solved! If not, then you try one of your other possible solutions. This is how you problem solve and with a little bit of a change in vocabulary and a more concentrated effort on data, you are performing the engineering process. In the interest of allowing me to continue to speak on this topic, we can just keep that between us.

The next issue is money. Like anything else in education, money is always going to be one of those “yeah but” issues. If you view technology as computers and robots and drones, then it definitely can be a difficult obstacle. What if we viewed STEM as an opportunity to use what we have around us to solve our problems. Turn these little ones into MacGyver (for those of you too young to know who that is, I feel for that void that you have). I love making technology out of everyday materials. I love to see how students take something completely unrelated to the problem and turn it into a piece of the solution. I enjoy giving the students choice in what they use and seeing how they create unique and useful solutions to problems. This causes me to be able to truthfully say that I don’t know what the solution to the problem is. That’s exciting because predictability is boring.

The last issue I feel keeps teachers from diving into STEM is that of assessment. Educators are always asking, “How do I take grades on this?” For starters, I think that we need to be careful what we are assessing during STEM activities. If you are trying to introduce math and science content in addition to assessing the engineering, you are setting the majority of your students up for failure. Cognitive overload can happen very easily in this situation. STEM is about application of knowledge and should focus on the process way more than the product. After all, we are promoting problem-solving skills. So let’s look for ways to assess these skills. Look for ways to assess brainstorming. Find ways to assess prototype development and testing. Develop methods to assess observation and reflection. Once this is accomplished, see that students are taking steps to address what they observed. This is far from true and false and multiple choice assessment, but worth the time so that students are truly placing the importance on the process and not the product.

The implementation of STEM in your classroom will come down to a decision. You want your students to seek problems and solve them. We know that a problem exists in our modern day students. They want immediate answers--usually via Google--to everything. Will you make the decision to brainstorm ways to address these problems? Will you design possible solutions and try them? Will you observe and record what goes right and wrong and make changes accordingly? Will you actually model those skills and practices that you feel are so vital to student success?

Follow me on Twitter @Mr_LeDune for tweets about STEM, PBL and classroom design competitions and feel free to contact any time with questions or comments.


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