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Preschool Science Class

Integrated STEM Connects the Classroom and Remote Learning to Real World Applications

Kelli List Wells reflects on the changes that have occurred in education this past year especially, but even over the last decade.

What a year we have had.  I have been reflecting on the changes that have occurred in education this past year especially, but even over the last decade. In my previous role, as executive director of education and skills, I was in the center of various reforms. The work I led at the time, started with a three-pronged approach, building a collaborative culture with superintendents, teacher organizations, and boards of education; working with schools and districts to review their existing curriculum and instruction; and leveraging corporate volunteers. The work evolved to supporting the development of ELA and math standards. Regardless of the name, high-quality standards are essential in supporting a high-quality education system. The next step was to support science standards that actually pulled the learning together. The work moved from the standards to addressing the critical or essential skills that are necessary for the workforce of today and tomorrow.

As I look at the evolution of the work, the terminology has evolved as well. Hands-on learning was all the buzz and now it is all about project-based learning. Common core has changed to state learning standards. And ESL, English as a Second Language, shifted to ELL, English Language Learners, to now ENL, English Native Language, to name a few. Now, schools have been forced to shift from in-person learning to remote and hybrid learning. Educators have been faced with unprecedented challenges. Educators do what they do best, preserve. So, with all the changes, technology has been thrown into the middle. Yet, technology is only as good as the learning behind it. 

Breaking down the silos in teaching

Now more than ever, we need to focus on the instructional core (curriculum and pedagogy), which involves breaking down the silos in teaching and allowing students to understand how the subjects connect so they become the critical thinkers, problem solvers, and innovators that own their learning. Whether you teach a particular content area or if you are teaching all subjects, the subjects are being taught in an isolated manner. This is not how the world works. We like to compartmentalize things, not just content areas. We want to teach critical skills/essential skills in an advisory session or special period, which may not be happening now. I do not know about you, but in my workplace, I do not separate these skills, they were part of my daily routine. I had to persevere, communicate, work collaboratively with others, and most of all be flexible. Or what about Project Based Learning, PBLs, some schools actually have PBL classes, I am not sure how that works.  Then there are robotic classes and maker spacers in schools, which I am all for, but where is the alignment, how does this connect to the other content areas. Does this still exist right now? Many schools have just added coding. Do students see this as a stand-alone? Can they connect this to math or literacy?  Also, curriculum alone is not the answer. If the professional learning is not provided, and I am not talking about 3 or 4 days, or at this point a few hours here and there. I am talking about the kind of professional learning that builds the capacity of the teacher by deepening their conceptual understanding how to integrate across the content areas.

Closing the Achievement Gap

Professional development and curriculum that is prescriptive will not close the gap alone.  However, professional learning that is authentic, meaningful and purposeful and curriculum that is modified to meet the needs of the learners across all content areas, will indeed close the achievement gap. It is when we realize that each person is unique and therefore, delivery of instruction must fit the individual but also the students the teacher is with.

In a remote learning environment, professional development is critical. It should be on the forefront of all schools and districts. Teachers know their students best and no one from the outside can think they know better. The teacher knows, which students have connectivity issues, which students had a rough night, the teacher hears and sees it all.  And regardless, if we like it or not students are tested on literacy and numeracy. If you cannot read or write, all the PBLs, coding, essential skills, and all the other one-off activities are not going to help students be successful in life. It is when all of this comes together in an integrated way that the transformation begins, that is why I am passionate about integrated STEM. STEM, however, has been used as an acronym. I have heard everything from a STEM project to a STEM degree. And when you ask parents, students, or people in the community, often they do not know what STEM is, it is equated to robotics or an iPhone. And if they discuss a STEM project, it really is just another activity because it is not explained how the science, math, engineering, and technology weave together using literacy as the anchor.  Integrated STEM is now more important than ever, as we have all seen is that the world is connected and STEM is at the core of everything. So, we need to ensure that our students are prepared.

Integrated STEM is not just about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

The amount of money that has been spent on random projects has not shown the results of closing the achievement gap for students. Integrated STEM is not just another buzz word and it is not just about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, it is about how to use science as the hook for the students and then to bring in the numeracy and literacy. Science is complex, think of the literacy and numeracy skills that can be developed using science. Then take it to the next level, the history of how the world works, social studies and history must be a part of the conversation, we learn from the past to build the future. Hasn’t the past helped us with this pandemic? Technology is more than a computer or iPhone it is actually closer to literacy skills when you think about coding and understanding the language behind computer skills. And engineering is design thinking, it is a process that allows for design, measuring/testing results, analyzing results, improving and reviewing, this cycle can be seen in everything from cooking to designing the next rocket for space.  The crux of integrated STEM is for students to understand the connection among subjects and that they are involved and own their learning because they are able to understand the relevance of what they are learning in the classroom and applying it to the real world. I do not intend for this to be a debate, but rather how do we all work together- policymakers, state leaders, district and school leaders, educators, businesses, nonprofits, museums, to make learning for ALL students engaging. We have had enough debate it is time for action, we need to move this work now!