STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) allows learning environments for students to be more active, and that means students can get more engaged in their own learning. There’s no manipulation for students to become active learners, either—it just happens naturally. When students can do that, they are better able to remember what they’ve learned, and more willing to go beyond—because it is meaningful. It is that personal engagement, as well as meaning, in the learning process that makes a difference. STEM does not allow students to remain passive learning by-standers for long, it does, rather, allow students to become, and continue to be dreamers, visionaries, and doers.

What Defines Us?

We are defined not only by what we construct but also by the creative design and passion of the invention we envision. Hand a child a paintbrush, a musical instrument, sing some thoughts to others or read a line of poetry aloud, and you’ll unleash the spark of innovation. The arts are empowering. They strengthen our spirit, stamina, and the ability for us to get through difficult times—just by participating. There can be no problem unsolvable when creativity opens more possibilities. You rarely hear a child say, “I can’t draw, sing, or dance.” unless an adult has said it first. Without a whole lot of STEAM power, that future trip to Mars wouldn’t spark the imagination necessary enough to actually do it.

While there are schools solely designed and operating as STEM schools, most schools, today, have some sort of STEM programs, with the numbers of STEM offerings in those schools increasing. With the major focus today on STEM it is easy for the Arts to be left out for more reasons than just the obvious budget cuts. And ideas of pay-to-play for the arts are absolutely the wrong messages to send young people, especially those, who make new connections in only that way. That sort of sitting on the creative bench is completely avoidable.

STEM – Great Foundation

STEM is a great foundation for helping to make good things happen in education, as well as one of the best ways to engage students in learning. I see the joy of the STEM movement every day at work, and in my travels, and it should be happening in every classroom, today, too. I’ve found it far easier to get corporate types out of comfortable chairs when I show them something that wows them. I’ve had the privilege of doing that a lot lately. It really focuses on STEM, as well as the maker movement. Learning excitement is difficult to confine to a seat, at any age.

Today, the increased STEM awareness and STEM activities in schools are not so much about competition, as in the space race, but more about students engaged in thinking, planning, refining, building, and re-inventing—and finding out that learning rewards in so many ways. There’s a direct connection, here, to student success, life preparedness, careers, economic security, and even national pride.

STEM, and now STEAM, adding the “A” for arts, are powerful ways for thinking about the integration for more seamless learning. It’s that way in life as well. School is one of the only places where we try to divide up knowledge, learning, and mastery into such defined categories such as Science, or Technology, or Engineering, or Math. STEM really is an authentic model for learning when schools engage with the community, corporate partners, and universities.

In my last district, we had a STEM Academy at one of our high schools, where STEM Academy teachers designed meaningful, relevant, and rigorous STEM course offerings that engaged students in all aspects of academic and career-technical skills. The program relied on its relationship with the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses to provide apprenticeship opportunities within local industries. In addition, partnerships with universities and technical colleges helped offer joint enrollment opportunities, and fostered mentorships, leveraging industry and post-secondary researchers, practitioners, experts, and leaders. Additionally, there were a variety of elementary schools in the district that offered STEM summer camps for students, too.

No matter how formal, or informal, the emphasis on STEM in your school or district, all opportunities should be considered and supported. STEM programs should be enriched through connections within your community, corporate partners and universities as well.

Here are a few more things to consider:

  1. While funding is important, volunteers are just as important.
  2. Seek STEM experts, who are willing to speak with students
  3. Find opportunities, where teachers can shadow experts in their STEM work environment.
  4. Create mentoring groups, where students can be mentored in similar STEM fields.
  5. Discover internships for students in STEM-related work fields.
  6. Connect with civic organizations and businesses.
  7. Find post-secondary institutions, where professors, university research students, and public school students can work together.
  8. Involve parents to share their careers and expertise with students.

If you are familiar with the scientific method, using the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Process will make sense. The beauty is that this process can easily be adapted for all subjects. Teachers of every subject and grade teach STEM somewhere in their curriculum, if not every day—they may not have looked for it, or known it. These steps will help:

Question: Ask questions to help understand the problem
 What will you need to do? How will you do it? What do you want to accomplish? Students will learn to ask questions that lead to answers and discover that all questions do not necessarily lead to right answers. Solving a problem is like solving a mystery. If students leave your class asking questions, it’s a good thing.

Imagine: Imagine and brainstorm solutions
  Use interactive technologies to help make and present the brainstorming fun, and also archive the ideas for later looks.

Plan: Plan and draw a design
  These can be pencil and ink, but digital drawings with tablets, laptops, and interactive whiteboards or interactive tables will make more sense and can be manipulated beyond paper images. The proper collaborative group placement will help students with limited artistic ability. Not everyone has to be an artist in a supportive group.

Build: Create and construct a working model
  There is nothing better than getting hands-on here. Most classes aren’t equipped with 3D printing yet, so any way students can create their designs works—for now—paper, tape, glue, clay, string…

Test: Test and experiment with that model controlling one variable—test, measure, and record  
Experimenting, testing, and a bit of noise go together to make this a memorable learning time for students. Change the variable… try again… and again.

Improve: Improve and revise the model
  How can the model be improved? Repeat the steps in this problem-solving process. Here’s where the review is actually part of the process. Encouraging modifications to make the best model from the best design is the goal. It takes time to do this, and some students will ask for more or continue the process long after the initial lesson is history.

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