It is hard to read a professional education periodical without being confronted with the latest news on “STEM.” This acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math has swept the education profession at a whirlwind pace. Of the many motivations to this new focus, one that seems to linger is that the United States has been economically successful because it historically has had an innovative culture. This follows with the belief that our innovative edge is dissipating as other countries develop their own innovation capabilities. The thought leaders in this area suggest that extensive focus on STEM in the classrooms will refortify America’s advantage as an innovative country and maintain our nation’s prosperity. As any major educational movement, there are strengths and weaknesses to this line of thinking.
From a skills and familiarity perspective, it makes sense that school districts revisit their programs to ensure that they are offering a thorough, rigorous and integrated approach to the STEM basics. This being said, it is critical for all educators to recognize that STEM subjects are not the only pathway to innovation, nor are they necessarily sufficient to inspire an innovative culture or child. A balanced approach that recognizes the importance of the arts and design, as well as understanding the needs of others, are critical components of innovation. This balanced approach calls on all of us to consider ways that we can foster innovativeness in the thinking of our children. Some will say that this flies in the face of the testing-rich accountability movement in education, but reality suggests that there is ample room for these opportunities in our schools. The heart of innovation lies in the connections that can be found in the richness of the activities, instruction, and curriculum we currently provide.
In District 205, our first step is to review the activities that we currently use in our lessons and identify how they are STEM focused. While the conversations around the implementation of STEM in District 205 are relatively new, there has been considerable work done to accomplish the objectives of this area. Curriculum Coordinators Kathleen Wilkey, Cathy Baker and Connie Chester have provided extensive leadership with this project as we examine our practices to ensure that we are offering our students rich opportunities in STEM-related fields. Together, with representatives from the District, Kathleen and Connie have begun the process of examining best practices in schools nearby. Already, it is apparent that our curriculum and instruction has numerous STEM attributes that merely need minor changes in labeling and focus. Many who have visited lauded programs in neighboring districts have been struck by the notion that we are already engaged in STEM-related learning. Additional learning opportunities are being identified to increase our professional capacity and expand our vision for STEM in District 205.
Aside from cosmetic and minor changes, we still need to ensure that we are providing the foundation of STEM that will be important in the future. When starting any major study of our curriculum, we begin with a review of relevant and appropriate standards. In the case of creativity, innovation, and technology, the most viable standards are the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS). The NETS exist for students, teachers, administrators and instructional coaches. For students, the set of standards is referred to as the NET-S. The set of standards is broken into 6 skills areas:
- Creativity and Innovation
- Communication and Collaboration
- Research and Information Fluency
- Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
- Digital Citizenship
- Technology Operations and Concepts
Unlike some sets of standards, the NET-S are well defined and broken into age-based benchmark levels. This benchmarking particularly well serves a unit district in its implementation of the standards, as we can integrate the standards from one level to the next.
While these standards are compelling and obviously important for our students, we will continue to address them after as we finish aligning our curriculum, assessment and instruction to the Common Core and College Readiness Standards (per appropriate grade level). Much like the identification of STEM activities that we are currently using, it will behoove us to begin by examining our curriculum for areas in which we are already addressing the NET-S standards. Since some courses and programs already focus on several of these standards, they will likely lead this effort.
To address the short and middle-term needs of our students to develop STEM capacities, Math and Science Coordinator Kathleen Wilkey has collected a wealth of STEM materials which she has placed on the District 205 Science page under Curriculum & Instruction.
STEM will come to District 205 in a variety of forms and functions. There will be plenty of opportunities to provide input and leadership and your help will be needed. We will keep you abreast of developments as they emerge.
-Compiled by Dr. Charles Johns, Elmhurst District 205 Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction