What STEM Really Means

While most people might understand what STEM stands for (Science, Technology. Engineering, and Math) they do not REALLY know what it means. They certainly will not understand how to truly embed STEM into a classroom. Without the adoption of inquiry-based, student-centered, skill-driven approaches to teaching and learning — all nested in a system that values innovation — STEM education will become just another term for additional math and engineering courses. Thom Markham, a psychologist, educator, and president of Global Redesigns, an international consulting organization focused on project-based learning, as well as former director of the Buck Institute, has some great ideas on how to really embed STEM education into your school.

Teach knowing and doing. Simply adding Advanced Calculus or a Design Media course isn’t enough. Engineers build and design things, using applied math. Scientists work through repeated failures in the process of successfully discovering a new drug. At the heart of any STEM program should be courses in which students create products, not just take tests. Those products should be exhibited to their peers, teachers, parents, and adult experts. This step requires smart scheduling, presentation space, invitations, practice time for public speaking, and — more than anything — attention to the design process. For example, every STEM program I’ve worked with gets better results by using the cycle of inquiry to stress continual reflection and refinement of the product. This requires an intentional assessment tool like a design rubric or reflection form that is graded.

Allow for creativity. STEM education is equated with innovation. But solid STEM education bumps up against other staples of the school system, such as AP requirements or pacing guides, that do not reward or support innovation. Success here might require rewriting the names of courses, working closely with curriculum coordinators to assure them that academic rigor is maintained, or adding courses to the STEM sequence that are not tied to end of course exams or standardized tests. But what really works? Think STEAM, not STEM. Incorporate a creativity rubric into your project. Use a rubric that has a ‘breakthrough’ category. This category is open-ended and encourages students to think outside the box.

Make teamwork central. Scientists and engineers work in teams, so emphasizing teams — and training teachers and students in how to make teams successful in the classroom — is essential to great STEM education. To move from old notions of group work or cooperative learning into real teams, use a team collaboration and work ethic to help students identify the exact tasks associated with 21st century teamwork.

Start with questions. Any important endeavor in science, engineering, or technology starts with a question. How do we create this product? What are the best design specs? What does the consumer want? An engaging, rigorous STEM curriculum emphasizes questions, not rote learning, lectures, or regurgitating known information. A STEM program can teach facts and information — these are essential to young people. But make sure that students are constantly challenged by interesting, meaningful questions — with potential answers that matter to the world.

Corcoran_Dana_WEBDana Corcoran
Science Coordinator

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