What if We Started Looking at STEM-Education Differently?

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October 23, 2017

By James Murray, principal, Waukesha STEM Academy
 
STEM is all the rage these days, and with an ever-growing gap in filling jobs that are tied to science, technology, engineering and math, employers are at a loss with finding well-rounded, educated and professional employees to hire.
 
What if STEM education began to be viewed as more than just science, technology, engineering and math, though? What if the STEM programs that are slowly emerging in schools across our country started working with our youth at a young age and became something greater, that helped develop successful, collaborative, creative and innovative thinkers who could actually apply their knowledge?  What could this possibly look like, and what might the benefits be for our workforce and, more importantly, our future?
 
A concept that has resonated with me for years has been one of students wanting to advance through “curriculum” as quickly as possible. Mastery never seemed to be the goal for these students – and sometimes parents – but really, how fast the student could advance through a program or ace a test just to show that they knew how to solve the problems and get some high school credits.
 
The issue, however, was when you asked them what the answers actually meant – as in, “What are you actually telling me?” Blank stares and a response of, “Well, the answer is 22.5432432,” quite often were conversations that hastily were exchanged across the table. Were we really helping our students grow as learners and, more importantly, as college and career citizens, who were ready to be sprung out into our ever-changing world? It was at this point, that the shift from masters of content began to transition into helping to foster experts in context.
 
What if we flipped the script and started to look at STEM differently? What if instead of simply thinking that students needed to master concepts, they became experts in context in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, they actually began to embrace STEM as “Strategies That Engage Minds” or even better yet “Solving Today’s Everyday Mysteries.” 
 
Students were now becoming real-life, rational problem-solvers, instead of solely solving a problem to show the answer. When asked how something worked or why it didn’t work, a student could now articulate the why, instead of just defend the what. 
 
When we look at the key factors that our employers are searching for in the up-and-coming workforce today, it isn’t a robotic crew of employees who can regurgitate the same data and facts over and over again, but more importantly, innovators who are able to think on the fly and find solutions to problems that we don’t even know exist yet. 
 
This is similar to the newer view on our educational system that the sole purpose of teaching should not only be to teach our students about anything and everything that has happened in the past, but rather, help them understand the future and shift our focus onto the how and why things occur and how and why there is a critical need to improve upon today’s concepts, products and solutions, to increase efficiency and help support a healthier and more sustainable planet. When you move people from thinking about gradually releasing responsibility, to gradually shifting their disposition, you have found the recipe for engagement. You have found the recipe for success.
 
James Murray of Waukesha STEM Academy, is one of Wisconsin’s 2017 Principals of the Year. From his initial role as a teacher to his work as principal, Murray was instrumental in moving the STEM Academy from an age and grade-based structure to having students move at their own pace based on proficiency.
 
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