What It Means to be a STEM School
As I look back on the first semester of the STEM School in Chattanooga, I realized that STEM has taken on a variety of meanings throughout the country. Some people view STEM as a way to add more math and science into the student day. Others look at it as a way to have students try and solve problems without one solution, but for these students to only do so as part of the curriculum in a math or science class or even some STEM elective class. And still others consider it a way to move kids away from the liberal arts and towards mathematic or scientific pursuits. What I have learned is that STEM is and should not be any of these. STEM is not an added piece to a school’s curricula. STEM is the core, the center, the heart of a school. All pursuits should be built from this core and outward. If STEM becomes the center, nothing becomes a mutually exclusive element or class or pursuit. Everything ties to STEM and STEM ties to everything.
–STEM is a focus on three key elements – critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation. Critical thinking being defined as students being able to think through a situation without having to be told what to do or merely regurgitate the information they were taught. Critical thinking involves creation, application, and analysis. Collaboration being defined as students learning how to work with others (both in homogeneous and heterogeneous teams) to develop successful products of work. Innovation being defined as students developing new and varied ideas for the same question or problem.
–STEM is a student becoming a self-sufficient learner. A student not being reliant on a teacher for success. A student learning how to learn, so that regardless of the instructional approach, the student can learn. Learning is not about dependency, but learning is about being both independent and interdependent.
–STEM is using technology… in everything. Students not only are consumers of technology, but creators of technology. Technology is an integral piece in enhancing student learning and enabling student innovation. Blended learning is the norm, not the exception.
–STEM is failure. Failure is emphasized, encouraged, and critiqued. It is recognized that successful innovation comes after failure and that grit is only developed through enduring failure.
–STEM is having at the center of your school a clear essential question or problem that students are working towards answering. This essential question or problem is connected to everything the student is doing throughout the day. It does not mean that every minute is spent answering the question or problem, but it means that the work students do will enable them to better understand the question or problem. No classes should be mutually exclusive. All classes should have a connection to this essential question or problem.
–STEM is appropriately implementing these essential questions or problems such that students participate in inclusive project or problem based learning experiences. Students should have performance tasks that model the following format: I (the student) will perform the following task (student creation) in order to prove that I have learned the following learning targets (state or national curricular targets written in student friendly language).
–STEM is developing partnerships with industry to develop essential questions or problems. STEM essential questions or problems should be related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematic issues, concerns, opportunities, and/or interests.
–STEM is the core of the school.
A STEM school must work to consistently incorporate the above. Schools that have isolated STEM programs are not STEM. They are a school with some extra work in math, technology, engineering, and/or science. STEM is inclusive and not exclusive, and does not discriminate. STEM is not an elective or a singular technical education preparation program.
STEM demands integration into everything you do, and only then can you call your school STEM.