The NYCDOE once again held their summer institute to advance STEM Instruction. Last year, our former chancellor had a heated discussion with Neil DeGrasse-Tyson. It made it clear that we must confront science denial and the reasons why we are failing in math instruction. I strongly believe that hands-on STEM learning is crucial to successfully train students in essential 21st-century skills and this year’s institute strengthened that perception with a number of new STEM-focused sessions on building, robotics, and design thinking. The keynote included statements from the soon-to-retire Director of STEM, Linda Curtis-Bey, who have made these events possible as well as Eric Contreras, the principal of Stuyvesant High School, who shared how the school is addressing STEM by bringing in classes covering artificial intelligence, cancer research, quantum math, and more. We also heard from the Deputy Chancellor and were treated to inspiring examples from Christine Cunningham, VP of Boston Museum of Science and Founding Director of Engineering is Elementary. Here are some of my key takeaways from the event.
More than just providing resources for STEM, we should be focused on creating a community of creative STEM learners. It isn’t enough or even best to buy a bunch of STEM learning kits and expect it to drive the learning without instilling the importance of being a creative tinkerer in your students.
We should be inspiring students to think of themselves as custodians of the community and the planet they are a part of. It’s not enough to encourage learning only in the classroom, but we need to push students to work towards solving the real-world challenges we face.
Key to STEM learning is connecting students to real-world practitioners. Students can begin to experience the awesomeness of engineering and design thinking in the classroom, but it is crucial that, in addition to directing them toward genuine challenges, we need to provide them first-hand examples of the people working in fields to solve those problems. And that becomes even more powerful if those are people in their community.
Help students create their own narratives. Story is powerful and powers everything in our lives. We don’t see our life as a series of events but as a story we tell ourselves about who we are. And we tell it to our students with every interaction and, in so doing, we tell them who we think they are. They listen. What story are we telling them? What story are we helping them narrate about themselves? Are we helping them become creators of something good?
Science investigation shouldn’t just be about the natural world when we live in an engineered world. We spend a lot of time on astronomy and biology in the early years which is great since I really love an Okapi and a nebula, but we should be exploring human designs during that time as well whether through code or building popsicle stick bridges.
Jokes about math being hard get a good laugh, but should they? One of the keynote presenters made an off the cuff comment about how they, as a literacy teacher, walked into a math class and just became overwhelmed with the symbols and numbers. People chuckled, because, you know, math is hard. But is that the right attitude to have? In a world where it’s become more acceptable for some kids to pretend to be ignorant since ‘not knowing’ is cooler than ‘knowing’ shouldn’t we fight against that attitude? Would we find a joke that ended with “but I can’t read because words are hard” as funny? If not why should math and science illiteracy be the butt of a joke?
It is crucial to provide access to design thinking and engineering opportunities to early learners. Reaching students at a young age gives us the chance to build a foundation that can help them progress and be prepared for the advanced critical thinking necessary for success. Some of the best ways to do this are connecting with tools that are familiar like LEGO education or Engineering is Elementary’s new EIE Kindergarten and Wee Engineer
Real design and reflection don’t need to be high tech. In fact, sometimes it’s more powerful and accessible when it’s not. It can involve common crafting materials like pipe cleaners, tape, and tinfoil. The materials are of less consequence than the design and the process. After reiterating and a quality design is completed, then a more permanent model can be created, but only after students understand the methodology which is easier with cheap, reusable tools.
Learning in the abstract is meaningless. Powerful learning comes in the application of our knowledge. Just knowing a fact serves no purpose. The distance the sun is of little consequence unless you’re designing for light interaction or space travel. Learning gets its purpose when it becomes hands-on. Otherwise, it is forgettable.
The right mindset is crucial for success in STEM. You see these traits in the students who excel. They understand the process, creatively seek many solutions, apply their knowledge, investigate, tinker, fail, and build again. One of the key components though is that they see themselves as real engineers and you treat them as such.
It is crucial in STEM instruction to embrace different approaches and multiple solutions to a problem. Rarely is there a single simple right answer to real-world challenges, so why do we require that in the classroom? If we want students to work to come up with designs to help clean the Pacific Garbage Patch, why would we accept only one type? Maybe someone creates a vacuum and another a filter system while a third has a robotic barge with arms. If we automatically disqualify certain ideas like those of an ingenious and dedicated 19-year-old designer then we will never find anything more than what we expected.
Technology alone will not engage and empower students. There are amazing tools available for classrooms, but if we aren’t connecting to the genuine concerns, needs, and personal lives of our students then we are doing a disservice. We can dig into NovelNY research and find quality information, but it is how we engage students in using it to share their voice that will make the difference.
Failure and reiteration are crucial to learning. Failure and reiteration or debugging are built into the design and coding processes, so it is unrealistic to expect first-try-success. In fact, it can be detrimental because it discourages innovative ideas.
Encourage risk-taking in students and teachers. Like I just said, if you’re not taking risks you will never find unexpected success. If, as a teacher, you are not regularly nervous about or stumbling with what you’re doing in the classroom then you are not exploring or growing. It’s easy to stagnate and get in a rut especially if you fear any error, but it maintaining everything as is you have already made an error because the world around you continues to evolve and change while you don’t.
We need to be asking children the right questions about their future. It isn’t about what they want to be but what problems they want to solve. ANd not what they want to solve when they grow up either. The efforts of Malala Yousafzai, the Parkland students, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Hector Pieterson, Sophie Scholl, or Joan of Arc demonstrate that advanced age isn’t a requirement for meaningful action.