The current reality on STEM

11/15/2012  |  SANDI REYES
stem curriculum

Picture a traditional classroom, desks in rows or in small groups, occupied by students whose postures suggest they have somewhere else they’d rather be. You walk silently into this room and as you appear in the doorway, smiles become contagious and students snap to attention, tapping their neighbors. 

You hear whispered announcements such as “She’s here!” and “C’mon it’s time!” Suddenly, you are surrounded by a thundering round of applause and everyone is on the edge of their seats, just waiting to find out what they’ll be learning today. This is not a dream. It is actually my reality as a STEM teacher, where STEM has become more exciting than recess. STEM classrooms are student-centered problem-based learning environments where students are encouraged to create and innovate within authentic real world situations. Students thrive within this kind of learning and often display proficiencies and abilities their teachers never knew they had.

With this type of response to STEM, one might assume that this style of teaching has been widely accepted, and even requested and implemented by administrators across the United States. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Regardless of the student engagement, achievement and life skills relevance, it is still a struggle to convince administrators to invest in and focus on STEM education. And, without administrator support, teachers aren’t able to make STEM a priority either.

Political and corporate support for STEM education continues to grow in momentum, while in our school systems, high stakes testing remains the focus for teacher and student evaluation and achievement. We tell teachers to embrace this paradigm shift, to focus on STEM skills, embed hands-on inquiry-based learning and to focus on the development of critical thinking skills. But, how can this happen when our education system is entrenched in standardized test scores as the measure of an effective educator? This oxymoronical situation puts teachers in a place of frustration and confusion as they strive to do what is right for students while satisfying the demands of administration to prepare for end-of-year tests.

To meet this challenge, I believe that administrators must be guided to discover the connections between the two enterprises and to begin to visualize lessons, teaching strategies and practices that develop the habits of mind and skills necessary to be successful at both. The administrator’s role as an instructional leader is imperative and ideas for the management of this new paradigm are needed.

The Possibilities

Due to time constraints, teachers must make every instructional minute count. Administrators’ focus on daily schedule blocks and perpetual test prep packets makes it nearly impossible for the average teacher to find the time needed to allow students to work on the type of open-ended cross-curricular projects that are inherent in STEM learning.

In order to create meaningful connections between STEM education and increased student achievement on standardized testing, it is necessary to take a step back and reevaluate the big ideas associated with the skills being assessed. It is only in adopting this panoramic view that we can begin to recognize the crosscutting concepts and institute practices that engage students in rigorous activities while simultaneously providing necessary assessment review.

One common practice when preparing students for a reading exam is to help them denote the critical information in a passage by highlighting or underlining. Each teacher has his/her own method for helping students to learn this skill, but the majority use practice test reading passages. I believe everyone can agree this is a crucial skill, not only for success on tests, but also in life. Regardless of one’s life path, the ability to comprehend written text and apply the information is dependent on this skill. Herein lies the problem in the current method. When we focus the practice of this skill within the specific context of test preparation, we are sending the sub-conscious message to students that this is only something they must do to receive a higher score on a particular exam. This results in the lack of the ability to transfer this knowledge to authentic reading experiences, where it is perhaps even more important.

A better solution is to give students explicit instruction in this technique with pieces of text that are required for the students to read during a STEM lesson. When students genuinely need to extract specific information from text in order to create a solution to an open-ended project, it not only provides a more authentic opportunity for application, but also serves to internalize this method. Suddenly, students become able to locate necessary information much more quickly and accurately in all types of written text, thus providing the required practice and increasing achievement.

The opportunities for the practice of math skills are abundant within STEM projects. At the heart of most problem-based STEM units is an innovation that the students must design and build. Very often, success is rooted in proper measurements and an understanding of geometric principles. At each level of standardized math exams, students must demonstrate the ability to measure correctly. At the lower level, it begins with standard linear measurement. As the difficulty of the tests progress, formulas for perimeter, area, volume, circumference, etc. appear. Rather than students completing page after page of black and white, two-dimensional word problems with blackline drawings, they can be applying the necessary understandings to actual objects that have specific criteria for success. As students determine which two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes must be incorporated into a project and which measurements are necessary in the design, they are learning and practicing calculations. This type of math skills practice is actually much more effective, as it requires not only rote memory of formulas, but knowledge of application and the use of critical thinking skills.

Where do we go from here?

Once administrators are able to use a broader definition of test practice and preparation, the relationship between STEM and increased achievement on standardized testing become apparent. But viewing learning through this lens is only the beginning. The true support starts with a commitment from administration to the development of programs and curriculum that support these rich learning experiences. In addition, we must provide teachers with the professional development required to implement STEM programs effectively. Change does not come easy, but there are steps administrators can take to make the process more palatable and smooth for teachers.

The most important first step that administrators can take is to acknowledge the demands that are being placed on classroom teachers. Too often, directors are removed from the daily operations and forget what a typical school day encompasses. Empathizing with teachers can go a long way in creating a partnership for change and open the lines of communication for everyone to find some common ground and an agreed upon entry point for a STEM initiative. When administrators and teachers come together in the understanding of how STEM and increased student achievement can occur simultaneously, the stage is immediately set for success.

Once administrators and teachers decide on an implementation plan, resources must be provided. One’s initial reaction to the concept of resources is to imagine the “things” needed to engage in these activities. This is a correct interpretation of the word, but it is only the narrowest view. When I refer to the idea of resources to support a STEM initiative, there are many other factors that must be included. Once the materials arrive, teachers need to be properly trained in how to use them. Professional development for teachers needs to include more than an isolated workshop. Comprehensive professional development includes multiple sessions where teachers are guided by experts, step-by-step, in the content understandings, materials set-up and organization, instructional strategies, and classroom management. Many times the best place to start is with observations, assessments, and self-reflection activities to understand where teachers currently are in their practices so a strong foundation can be established on which to build and grow.

An additional component of “resources” when transforming to a STEM environment is the provision of additional staff in classrooms to lower the teacher/student ratio and allow for extra help in set-up and clean up. Administrators do well when they analyze the use of support staff and reform schedules to provide extra people to assist during the more in-depth learning activities. So often, teachers want to engage in more hands-on small group differentiated learning but do not possess the capability to navigate those lessons independently. When additional staff is provided as an aid to this type of learning, teachers are more apt to take the risk and execute lessons more successfully.

The last piece of the “resources” puzzle that administrators should consider when planning strong support for a STEM program is the creation of solid professional learning communities with time given to teachers to meet, plan, and reflect. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a team of teachers to make a paradigm shift. Teachers working in isolation have a much more difficult time. Providing time for teachers to share experiences and the responsibility for creating new lessons, activities and assessments is paramount to STEM success and student achievement.

In the 21st century, administrators and teachers have more pressure than ever to deliver high test scores and show accountability for what is happening in the six hours per day spent with students. This can either create a division between the two groups if they work separately or a bond between them as they work together. When administrators develop a better understanding of how to best support teachers and create environments where discourse is encouraged and collaboration is commonplace, everyone wins.

Sandi Reyes is a National Board Certified educator and consultant, currently focused on her role as the Chief Education Offi cer for Eduscape Learning, an education professional development company. She is also the author of two books for K-2 and third and fifth grade teachers, titled Engineer Through the Year, teacher resource guides for STEM education activities in the elementary classroom. For more information, visit
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