The Last Time We Left Our Hero
Okay, okay, so “hero” may be (it is) too strong a word, but this blog post does pick up where my February post left off. The original post in this two-part series attempts to provide one possible working definition of STEM. There are as many possible definitions as there are STEM educators, but for our purposes STEM is the intentional raising of awareness with regards to carefully planned integration and application of science, technology, engineering, and math.
Our amazing title1 is actually a quote from a not-to-be named high-ranking official in a district far, far away. However, it’s safe to say that this quote could have been attributed to many superintendents across the state. You might be asking: so what’s the big deal? Well, if we as STEM educators do not start to answer these questions in both word and action, then others with less training and experience in the STEM subject areas are going to start doing this for us. The result will most likely be less than desirable.
Now That We Have a Working Definition… When Do We Start?
The answer, of course, is that you already are doing STEM, or at least teaching the STEM subjects. What may need some work is the planned application and integration pieces.
Integrating and applying science, technology, engineering, and math takes a little bit more work. There is no magical recipe or secret sauce. The one thing that should always be a given though is that you start with the standards. What are your grade-level standards for where you teach? How do they lend themselves to integration and application? Best of all, what are you already doing that’s standards-based and ripe for adding an integration or application piece?
Whatever you do, do not—and I repeat—do not, try to build some amazing brand new unit from scratch that meets all of your perceived criteria for the perfect STEM unit. This will initially, and probably ultimately, end in tears. If you’re a classroom teacher then you definitely don’t have time for this, and the project will inevitably take 10 times longer than you imagined. Start small!
First Attempt In Learning
[Also known as my dating life before I met my wife]
K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Silly/Stupid)
So this is the only kissing that should ever be done in class, but remembering to keep things simple will save a lot of time and trouble. You will inevitably make things complicated because that is human nature, but if you start out at least trying to keep things simple then the final result might be manageable. Teaching is as much an art as it is a science, and there is too much going on in any lesson to really quantify or keep track of everything. The simpler the solution to any problem, the more elegant the outcome. There is a reason this mantra is common among engineers and remember the “E” in STEM stands for engineering.
Integrating, Differentiating, and Calculating is not just for Calculus
Integration is the reason STEM comprises multiple subjects within the acronym. Teaching a truly STEM lesson means looking at how two or more of the subject areas naturally compliment and then bringing this out for students. As educators, we do students a huge disservice by keeping subjects relatively compartmentalized. In reality, science does not exist without the ability to mathematically calculate, technology does not exist without the engineering behind it, and the list goes on. Highlighting, or even requiring, lesson activities that integrate these subject areas results in a deeper and more profound understanding.
Baking Soda Volcanoes Every Day of the Week! Or Not…
Application can be a little harder because this is inevitably messier. Any time we educators attempt to simulate “real world” use of concepts in the classroom, we are required to do additional planning beforehand and clean-up afterwards. Additionally, we run the risk that students focus on the “fun” of doing but miss the actual learning. This is not a reason to shy away from any hands-on problem- or project-based learning in the classroom. This is a reason to be careful, calculated, and reasonable in your implementation. Milk the investment for all it’s worth in order to get the most out of your time. Front load with background work and research, and then follow-up with careful analysis and study. This will maximize your investment in hands-on, minds-on learning. Carefully managed play and exploration both have their places, but for example, you don’t want to become the hapless science teacher who runs hands-on science experiments every day that are fun and the students love but their learning is minimal because the activity is “minds-off”.
[I can neither confirm nor deny any role in this picture… okay, okay, this may be the predictable result of a catnip overdose I shamelessly facilitated just for this post. Ironically, not her First Attempt In Learning.]
The Perfect STEM Lesson…
Doesn’t exist. Every lesson is taught by you, me, or someone else, a human, and therefore inherently flawed on some level. Don’t get me wrong. You will have amazing lessons, but you will also have dismal failures. This is part of the learning process. Just like it’s okay for your students to fail–in order for you to avoid being a hypocrite–it has to be okay for you to fail too. Think of failing as your First Attempt In Learning. I don’t know where my principal found the wonderful F.A.I.L. acronym, but we’ve got to give ourselves space to experiment, learn, fail, and then learn from our failures. Only then will you take the risks necessary to teach your most amazing lessons. If you take anything away of value from this blog post, let it be that. If I provide you with nothing of value in regards to defining, integrating, and applying STEM conceptually, then I have failed. However, while I am nervous about failing, I am not so afraid to fail that I left this blog post unpublished. I published it. I’ll learn from the process either way and be a better educator for my efforts and risks. I hope that you are too!
You may have noticed that I did not provide any examples of sample activities or lessons. That’s because the point of this post was pedagogical, but don’t worry because we will get into the practical. I don’t want to “color” your initial attempts as there is no one right way, and everyone has different curriculum available as well as different limitations. So go forth and F.A.I.L. because I’ll be “write” behind you and back next time with another attempt in learning about science, technology, engineering, and math. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you about your thoughts below.
*Follow-up Note: After writing this post, I had the chance to speak at the “State of the City 2015” and address the mayor, city council, and regional chamber of commerce for the city where my district is located. I spoke briefly about the importance of STEM education via the FIRST organization. If you are curious, a robotics student and I are introduced around the 4:30ish mark for the March 4th event located on this page: http://kentwa.iqm2.com/citizens/Media.aspx.