Hearing about STEM programs being incorporated into schools is nothing new, though I still frequently encounter districts that don’t have any STEM initiative in place. That doesn’t alarm me at first glance.
See, I have also worked with schools who have a set-aside STEM time one day each week, and with schools who have a pull-out STEM class that everyone attends every week. I’ve also worked with an art teacher who had her students use the one 3D printer to design and print Christmas ornaments the week before winter break, and walked through schools with empty MakerSpaces. These scenes alarm me much more than an absent verbalized STEM program.
STEM – or STEAM if you’re really progressive :) – is necessary, but not as a “here’s your STEM time for this week, kids” kind of way. STEM strategies and the mindsets they trigger need to be an ongoing addition to every classroom, regardless of subject and grade level. Fostering critical thinking skills, and empowering students to look at a collection of data to identify problems and challenges, leading to working out solutions to those are skills every student should have the opportunity to hone…
All. Day. Long.
Students of all ages like STEM activities so much because STEM is rooted in everything that makes kids kids. It taps into their inherent curiosity and desire for exploration. It allows them to be both critical and creative thinkers and allows deeper learning to occur usually without them even realizing it’s happening.
This is similar to MakerSpaces. Don’t get me wrong; great MakerSpaces are phenomenal places of learning. But when a teacher is forced to reserve the room for thirty minutes, it’s often seen as something that has to be tacked on to an already full day. MakerSpaces should actually be a replacement or extension of learning. That’s the downside to the lab set-up. At some point the timer goes off and the making has to end. It’s like telling students that they can’t use math strategies in social studies because math time is over for the day.
I have worked with countless schools who believe in the power of student-driven learning. These educators don’t think in silos as much as teachers in traditional classrooms do. Instead, STEM, design thinking, and making all become part of the continuous learning process. When MakerSpaces and STEM-time are a once-a-week special, it’s like saying that we will only use that mindset and those strategies when we are in that space. That goes against their very philosophies of purpose.
My son (now 13) started making stuff from our recycling bin and a roll of tape when he was only three years old. I didn’t have to teach him to be creative, or how to work through an iterative process, he just did it. He got to create anything his mind could imagine. He crafted everything from swords and shields to helmets for the cat and even some cardboard underwear! I did something similar in my 2nd-grade classroom before the Maker movement was even a thing. I’d just put out all of the random art supplies I had collected and let students create. Too often, administrators think that MakerSpaces have to be this separate room with all the latest tech toys. Those tech toys are great, but they aren’t what MakerSpaces or STEM are all about.
So, yes, STEM is a necessary component in contemporary education. I don’t want to see it be a separate class or a separate time of the week. Project-based learning is an excellent way to integrate all subjects and allow for continuous, authentic learning to take place. We need educators at all levels to think outside of bell schedules for this to really work. When asked how I want to see STEM in schools in the future, I answered that I wish STEM strategies and the STEM mindset to permeate all that we do in education. This is when we truly produce life-ready students.