Thursday, December 1, 2016

Developing Student Passion for STEM

I was born into a family with four sisters and was primarily exposed to those things stereotypically associated with little girls.  Early on, however, I discovered a love for science, math and figuring out how and why things worked. Later, I discovered my love for technology.  Fortunately for me, influential teachers encouraged me to major in Chemistry which provided a great foundation for my eventual career in education. I do believe that it takes encouragement along with intentionally planned opportunities and exposure to help students discover passions for the skills in the area of STEM to develop.  This is especially true for female students who may otherwise be left out.  
The use of technology has infiltrated almost all aspects of our lives.  As we consider the present and future needs of our world, we know that STEM careers are growing at an all-time high. Helping students develop their abilities to think critically, collaborate and solve real-world problems involving the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics is an essential element of a child’s education.
When considering a STEM program at a particular school, parents should determine the extent to which students within the school in grades K-12 have the opportunity to engage in STEM experiences.  It is important for schools to have a vertically aligned curriculum that intentionally integrates inquiry-based learning opportunities from the earliest grades and throughout high school for all students.  As students seek creative solutions to authentic STEM challenges that increase in complexity as students migrate through the school, their learning is scaffolded and students discover meaningful applications that often lead to lifelong passions. 
In addition to a strong STEM curriculum during the school day, parents should ask about extra-curricular STEM opportunities available for students outside of the classroom. Robotics teams, Odyssey of the Mind, Science Club, Environmental Awareness Club, Math Lab and Drone Teams are examples that allow students to work independently and collaboratively to become proficient at solving real-world problems. Extracurricular participation can allow children extended time to explore and develop their passions, learn to work and compete as part of a team to achieve a common goal.
It is also important for schools to form relationships with business/industry partners and universities to provide authentic applications of STEM and to involve our community experts to help assess and augment the learning process as students learn to research and demonstrate their learning to external audiences. This truly makes it real for our students and again opens their eyes to personal interests and potential career interests.
Finally, parents should inquire about the ongoing growth and professional development of faculty within a school. It is important for all teachers to have a personal growth plan with opportunities to explore and strengthen their unique passions as they seek to engage their students in order to foster critical thinking and ethical problem solving skills. The prototyping of solutions to real world problems integrates essential art and design elements and can be used in all curricular areas.  As teachers increase their awareness of how and when they might incorporate these essential skills within their curriculum, it truly takes it to a new level.

Parents and schools must be intentional as we continually strive to incorporate STEM experiences into the lives of our children. Parents can build on school based experiences by taking advantage of local opportunities such as Maker Faires, museums, and summer camps. Parents can further develop these skills by providing creative outlets for their children by exposing them to fun, hands-on, playful games.  Engineering experiences with aerospace, environmental, marine and mechanical are just a few of the exploration areas.  Even cooking with children can be a great application as well as visiting or searching on Google for DIY STEAM projects to access a plethora of fantastic examples. LEGO’s, drones, free programming apps such as Scratch, Tynker, Daisy the Dinosaur as well as the Robot Turtles cardboard game which teaches programming fundamentals for ages 4 and up can be enjoyable educational opportunities.  
Note: Originally Published in Southern Distinction Magazine, Vol 4.5 2016


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