Teaching in a STEM school: ideas, possibilities and issues

photo 2-27STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering Mathematics; it is an acronym currently on the lips of many education policy makers, government bureaucrats, industry leaders, university heads, and school principals, teachers and students both in Australia and overseas.

Reports abound with reasons why STEM must be given more attention at the school level. In Australia recent reports by the Office of the Chief Scientist (2014, 2015) make the case. Such documents state the urgency for better STEM teaching in schools as the means to interest high school students in taking STEM subjects in the final years of schooling. Wisdom being that this will lead to further study in STEM when students go to university*. Both federal and state governments cite increasing STEM graduates as essential to improved international competitiveness and therefore the nation’s productivity. Teaching computational thinking and coding skills in school subjects, for example, are seen as methods to advance success in STEM.

photo 1-33At present there are no designated STEM only schools in Australia. Hence the opportunity to visit such a school on #jhstudyleave in the USA, where there a quite a few, was high on my list of sabbatical priorities**.

Last week I was fortunate to spend the day at a STEM accredited public school in Savannah, Georgia***. This visit arose as a consequence of meeting an impressive teacher from the school at the annual SITE conference in Jacksonville, Florida in March 2014 – Amanda Fox is a film and broadcasting instructor at the STEM Academy at Bartlett Middle School.

The school prides itself on having a raven as its symbol and in its mission statement: “the school provides students with a rigorous, relevant inter-disciplinary curriculum of academic study that will advance their knowledge in the areas of science, technology, and other branches of scholarship, empowering them to become college and career-ready and prepared to work in the twenty-first century”.

photo 2-26Established three years ago, the school has 690 students in years 6, 7 and 8; it is diverse with the majority of students from Hispanic, African–American, Asian and Russian backgrounds. Learning spaces include a maker space, a video production studio and a game design workshop.

An interview conducted with Amanda provides useful thinking about what a STEM school might look like; it covers:

  1. why teaching STEM is not easy
  2. what to keep in mind when hiring staff to teach at a STEM designated school
  3. what is STEM and how it must focus on communication, collaboration, community and creativity where there is also emphasis on little stem ie sharing, trust, encouragement and modelling – “such schools must be driven by passion – dispositions of appointed teachers is what matters” says Amanda. In initial interviews conducted with prospective staff to set up the school it was a requirement to explain how as a teacher you cultivate relationships, your personality was important – and there was attention to a teacher’s subject matter knowledge but this was less important than understanding their pedagogical approach to learning
  4. the processes that students at the school use to solve problems through projects, for example, the Grand Engineering Challenge
  5. how the school initially used a fictional trilogy to ‘hook’ the students into a trans-disciplinary approach to learning
  6. details of how the common core standards underpin all teaching in every classroom
  7. how the school links to university experts and their work in classrooms; and
  8. how every student does two apps classes each day – chosen from film production (Amanda teachers this – she uses App Show and Camtasia – access her ‘flipped work’ plus more here) robotics, engineering, game design, research and development, and music tech.

photo 3-12Amanda referred to the significance of STEAM at the school: “In gaining accreditation we received high praise for our seamless integration of the Arts into the school curriculum – the products students make – all have an aesthetic flair”.

It was fascinating to observe Amanda prepare her film studio for each new group of students across the morning – lots of attention to seating students at benches with a wall-mounted central computer screen – students supplemented this resource with their own devices. I observed students working in groups on various film projects; including one Year 8 class who were making an instructional video; actively engaged in editing, filming, testing, storyboarding and narrating their projects. Listen to the full interview with Amanda here.

photo 1-30
Common Core Standards all underpin Corey’s game design class

After lunch I joined Steve Routh’s maker class. Details about Steve’s pedagogical approach are picked up in his wonderful blog – access it here. Steve has an engineering background and the maker space was awash with large and small-scale projects – all part of the Grand Engineering Challenge.

Another space I spent time in was Corey Powell’s – his game design workshop was a hive of activity with students building games using Stencyl – an app he likes: “students have to market what they build – this is a business and computer science class – students have no fear of technology and they don’t have a problem with messing up”.

Results (mandated tests) of students who attend the school are extraordinary. It is what follows after their experience at Bartlett Middle School that is of concern to teachers and education leaders. There is no STEM high school in Savannah – presumably the STEM taste students have at Bartlett means they may make particular subjects choices for their final three years of school. Need research.

photo 4-6I asked Amanda if she thought STEM schools could be the lever for changing the industrial model of schooling: “STEM is a strategy to holistically teach problems and solutions – all in all it is just good teaching – you can find it in other schools. What STEM does – is help pioneer a new way to configure learning and teaching – it prepares future ready students. If the STEM stamp means learning changes for students, then it’s helpful”.

And with that, the bell rang at 2.55pm … the jovial voice on the intercom said: “It is now time to please release the ravens for the day”.

raven stem tightAnd with a collective flutter through the corridors of the school the ravens flew out of the aviary.

* An announcement this week by the NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli is a leap in the right direction – the proposed STEM high school is academically selective and will connect to the Hawkesbury campus of  Western Sydney University.

** Many NSW primary schools are also stepping up to do exciting work in STEM. For example: Lee Hewes at MEPS is using Minecraft across the curriculum; Georgia Constanti and Kim Naylor have their combined Cardboard Challenge on the 24th November; Therese Hinder, Principal at Epping West PS whose Kindergarten teachers earlier in the year  were deeply engaged in a Science and HSIE project using High Possibility Classrooms; and Deborah Evans, DP and her fabulous team at Wahroonga PS  who is leading ‘cutting edge’ research projects in STEM … just to name a few. Switching students on to STEM early is critical.

*** View the promotional video on the STEM Academy at Bartlett Middle School here.