Misconceptions about STEM education are common in many classrooms. At our school, one of the biggest misconceptions was that STEM was only about science, technology, engineering and math content. We thought that if teachers were not teaching one of those subjects, then STEM did not pertain to them.
What we have learned, however, is that STEM is about implementing rigorous instructional strategies that can be applied in any content area. Here are a few actions we have implemented to establish a STEM culture and support effective teaching in every subject.
Experience STEM learning first-hand
Our journey began when we decided to pursue a national certification in STEM. Over the last several years, our teachers and leaders have worked diligently to implement research-based practices and deliver instruction more effectively. When we decided that STEM certification would be our next direction, we initiated a partnership with the National Institute for STEM Education and began working toward the National Certificate for STEM Excellence Campus Certificate in the summer of 2018.
During our first meeting with our STEM leadership coach from NISE, he took us out of the conference room and turned us loose in the central courtyard of our school. We looked for anything that caught our attention. We engaged with nature and discussed what we found with our peers. We thought and acted as scientists. This was our first experience with a 3D classroom, and it became the foundation for how we wanted to engage students when they returned in the fall.
Engage in three dimensional teaching
While we pursued campus certification, 10 teachers worked toward the National Certificate for STEM Teaching (NCST). During this process, we analyzed how to integrate three distinct dimensions of teaching — Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts — into our classrooms. As we did so, we realized that these best practices didn’t have to stay in math and science classrooms; they could be applied to any subject. We discovered that STEM isn’t about what we teach; it’s about how we teach.
Connect learning between classrooms
As a result of our STEM training, we have broken down barriers between classrooms. We now collaborate with our colleagues to help students connect concepts, practices, and content across subjects. For example, if a teacher is covering a specific topic in science or history, I may assign a non-fiction article to illustrate real-world connections or a novel to extend students’ learning.
Connect learning outside the classroom
School walls do not have to be barriers either. Previously, we were hesitant to take students outside because we thought it would be too easy for things to get out of hand. What it actually does is bring greater focus and clarity. It opens up a new level of engagement and creates real-world connections. It makes it easier for students to have conversations with their peers or with me. This is helpful for struggling learners who may feel self-conscious about asking questions in class. Being outside also gives students a sense of freedom, which helps them investigate, collaborate, and problem solve in new ways.
Give students more ownership of their learning
In the past, we were also reluctant to relinquish control to students. What we learned is that giving students more control increases their engagement. When they are excited about their work, we don’t have to redirect their attention. They are able to go further faster because they are active participants in their learning. Fostering data utilization is part of this, too. Students track their own performance data, and we solicit their input about what they can do to improve.
Build 21st century skills
For us, STEM is a means to support our mission statement, which is to prepare students for the 21st century by providing opportunities for creating, communicating, collaborating, and critical thinking — the 4Cs. This means that the teacher no longer has to be the voice of the classroom. Instead, we make time for students to engage in the 4Cs in pairs and in groups. This teamwork helps them move forward academically, as well as socially and emotionally.
Create safe learning environments
Of course, STEM instruction can present challenges, too. For example, inquiry-based learning can produce uncertainty, which can make some students feel uncomfortable. Through our STEM training, we learned to create environments where students feel comfortable taking academic risks. This includes making the physical space safe and accessible, and making student interactions and student-teachers interactions feel safe. It involves establishing clear, consistent classrooms routines and procedures. It also involves how we respond to failure. If a first attempt at solving a problem fails, students know they can apply what they’ve learned in a different way and try again. They get excited by that because they know their learning isn’t just about one assignment or test; it’s about their understanding.
Support excellence in teaching
In spring of 2019, our school became the first in New Mexico — and one of the first Catholic schools in the nation — to earn the NCSE–Campus Certificate, and 10 teachers completed the NCST. It is important to note that it was not just science and math teachers who earned certification; an art teacher, a literature teacher, and a pre-K teacher became STEM certified, too.
The certification process helped us become more intentional across all subjects. It helped us elevate our teaching to increase student engagement and allow for more problem-solving and student-driven exploration. Our teachers are dedicated to 21st century learning and to finding new ways to help students become partners in learning. This year, more teachers want to become STEM certified because they see the change in students in the classrooms of STEM certified teachers, and they want to continue the momentum.
Making this shift does not occur overnight. It must become embedded in the culture of a school. STEM certification focused our efforts to provide the best instructional practices in our classrooms, and we look forward to continuing to build upon our work.
Shawnda Osborn is the assistant principal and literature teacher at Holy Ghost Catholic School, a national STEM certified preK-8 school in Albuquerque, N.M.
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