Oh! That's STEM?
There comes a time in every person's career when they finally get it. The light bulb turns on and they see the forest through the trees. For me, that has happened in the last nine months.
In August, 2014, I began working as the Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab) instructor at STEM School Chattanooga; a 3 year old, burgeoning platform school in Tennessee. A long time opponent of the STEM movement, I was convinced that STEM was just another educational buzzword; a fad that would burn out like all the others before it. Having worked with the administrative team on a professional development opportunity a year prior, I knew they would be great to work for (even if I didn't necessarily agree with the philosophies). In the last 3 months, I learned that not only was it a great idea to work with this team, but my beliefs about STEM couldn't have been further from the truth. The problem was simply that I didn't really know what STEM was.
I was first introduced to STEM as a pedagogical philosophy that was rooted in discovery learning. As an upper level math teacher at the time, I often joked that this was ridiculous. It took mathematicians 2000 years to move from Euclidian Geometry to modern Calculus. How were my students supposed to "discover" that much progress in 90 class days?! Was I really just suppose to give them a great problem, sit down, and watch them discover calculus? I knew that was dumb so I always reverted to standing in front and being the expert I "knew" they needed.
Now that I'm the STEM school, I'm realizing that I am now living in a perpetual light bulb moment. Everyday I have an epiphany that totally rocks how I previously viewed education. Working at the STEM School, I have discovered that it's not about throwing a project at kids and watching them make awesome stuff. It's about sharing my experience and expertise with students as we work together to solve contextually meaningful, authentic problems. In this journey, students inevitably integrate STEM content into their educational experience. The big shift is that rather than working within trivial situations, the carefully designed PBL units we use foster an environment that promotes "accidental learning." This journey provides students with the ideal opportunity to acquire relevant and vital skills as they work to develop products they genuinely care about because they are creating products they have designed from their own imagination.
When students work within authentic frameworks, they engage in learning on a professional level. They may not (and often don't) formally realize what is happening, but they begin to actively seek out new skills to help them synthesize a solution for the product they have in their head. In this model, students accidentally learn new skills en route to creating unique solutions to real problems. I really don't care that they can solve the problem necessarily. The true value is in the process. In the 21st century, it's not about the content (everyone has access to the same content). It's about the process.
What I once thought was STEM was not STEM at all. STEM is about the process of developing self-sufficient problem solvers. That's what Science, Engineering, and Math fundamentally accomplish by harnessing Technology to enhance the types of problems we can solve. As an educational philosophy, STEM is about empowering students to become high-level problem solvers across all domains. It is about developing students who are capable of blending critical and innovating thinking skills to work together to solve problems. 21st century jobs require this. It only makes sense to impart that to our students as early as possible.
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