Monday, February 11, 2013

STEM: Buzzword or Game Changer

The quickest way to make your initiative the butt of jokes in the teacher's lounge is to give it a buzzword that is supposed to make it popular. Not only is STEM this decades most used buzzword in science and math teaching it is also an acronym. That is a double whammy for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math teachers. Teachers get tired of hearing how we are supposed to "collaborate towards integrating our standards and benchmarks with fidelity." In a future post, I will put together a set of buzzword bingo cards for your next in-service. Nothing is funnier than a teacher in the back of the room yelling bingo when someone used the word "differentiation".

We joke, we laugh, we poke fun, but here is a secret that not many teachers will admit. Buzzwords have power! We realize that most of the initiatives that come out are really just old ideas wrapped in fancy new jargon, labelled and categorized with new vocabulary to sell more teacher prep textbooks or accept some doctoral thesis. But when a buzzword transcends the realm of the thesis committee or educational journal audience and becomes real to those outside education, it gains power.

STEM has done this. The focus on these four disciplines reaches from the very top of our government, to the small businessmen in our towns. Our President has used the term, my Governor has an initiative, and local businessmen have rallied to its calling. Money has been allocated, administrative bureaucracies set up, and charity grants awarded for this acronym. This makes STEM, at least in my eyes, more than a buzzword, it's a Game Changer!

I recently had a discussion with a local businessman who was convinced that STEM education was the direction that this country needed to focus. He was concerned, as we all are, that the US has been falling behind in math and science. He knew that our schools have work to do in preparing kids to be competitive in a world-wide market. He heard the calling and was prepared to help in any way he could. That is the power of STEM.

Last week I attended a meeting of our Quad Cities Engineering and Science Council where we heard local engineers and teachers coming together to link what was done in the classroom to what was needed in the real world. The fact that we even have an Engineering and Science Council in our city was impressive to me, but to hear the passion that these businessmen and engineers had for STEM was astounding. The council has been around for 51 years, telling you that the focus on science and math has always been there. STEM has given them something to rally around. They sponsor and work at numerous engineering events throughout the year, give teaching awards, and fund scholarships for students.

STEM is here to stay. To me it is not about learning math and science facts; it is a focus on making students think. This is a mindset that all these disciplines share. It is about solving problems in new and exciting ways. It is about moving engineering thought processes into a science classroom. It is about inquiry learning in math curriculum. It is about teaching the physics behind the principles students use in shop to build their catapult, or the statistics needed in biology to understand how populations change over time. It is pulling teachers together and linking them with industry. It is all of us working together for our students.

Do not brush it aside like we do with so many other initiatives, rally behind it. Science teachers, go to your shop teachers and ask them how you can help with their curriculum. Math teachers, visit a science teacher to ask how your math fits into their lessons. Lend them your expertise. Engineers and businessmen, go to your schools and ask how you can help. You may be surprised at how willing teachers will be to accept any assistance you can offer. Teachers, go to your school boards and ask for support for STEM projects. Administrators, set up a STEM coordinator in your district that can pull resources, people, and initiatives together in one cohesive K-12 system. With all of us working together, we can make the changes our country needs.

Please post comments with your thoughts on STEM as these are my ramblings. In future posts, I plan to talk about some of the stumbles that I see our country has made in STEM in the past and possible ways to fix them in each community as well as overall. I will also be sharing out opportunities in STEM across the nation and the state of Iowa. Stay tuned.