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  • Writer's pictureAmber Bosman

STEM education: Creating learning communities

What is integrated STEM? “In practice, STEM educators lack a cohesive understanding of STEM education. Therefore, they could benefit from a STEM education conceptual framework. The process of integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in authentic contexts can be as complex as the global challenges that demand a new generation of STEM experts. Educational researchers indicate that teachers struggle to make connections across the STEM disciplines. Consequently, students are often disinterested in science and math when they learn in an isolated and disjointed manner missing connections to crosscutting concepts and real-world applications.”

– Kelley and Knowles, International Journal of STEM Education, 2016

There is a lot of buzz about providing equity and access for all students to achieve. The educators advocating for this are leaving out the key component: ensuring that the instructional core is at the apex of this reform. We provide students with essential skills to improve culture and climate of schools, but we are doing them an injustice because educators will spend an enormous amount of time working in their comfort zone and will not spend time where the work is needed. The work that is required is costly but will pay off in the long run and create sustainable school environments. That is, deepening educators’ conceptual understanding of how to align standards, tailor curricula to meet the needs of all their students and embed the essential skills necessary for students to compete in academia and the workplace. This is no easy task! Creating a learning environment for all shareholders in schools is costly, but worthwhile in the long run. What does that look like? We will approach this question by guiding schools to develop an integrated STEM unit plan across the content areas that ensures literacy, numeracy, essential skills, and content are being addressed and measured.

Through an Integrated STEM approach, we can ensure that teachers are providing students with all the necessary tools. I caution to say that while all schools want STEM incorporated into their student’s lives and make meaningful attempts to make that happen, it is enacted in an isolated and disjointed manner, missing connections to cross-cutting concepts. What STEM education advocates often forget (and perhaps intentionally) is we should also be consistently strengthening student disciplinary literacy – the glue that allows for the sciences to mingle with the arts in a way that provides access to all learners and not just students who favor math and science. Students read and write about science, use math to understand science and can examine science’s role in the development of society over hundreds of years. True integrated STEM is a whole school experience that blends the instructional core with essential skills.

Developing a learning community for all shareholders (administrators, teachers, parents, community-based organizations, nonprofits, and businesses and industry) is a process that requires coherent and strategic learning opportunities for all. Everyone understands their role in how best to support our students during their learning journey. It builds from lesson to lesson, from workshop to workshop; it keeps all shareholders informed of their contributions towards the goal to develop students that will be ready for the workforce. Communication of how it is being delivered is extremely important. All shareholders must understand the vision and mission. They also need to understand why and how this will be accomplished. Collaboration needs to be collegial for all shareholders to learn from each other and model for students these skills that are extremely important in the workplace. Teamwork is an essential skill for students to be able to solve problems or projects in a collegial collaborative manner. Consistency is the key to developing these learning communities. It requires a continuous learning plan that is inclusive of all and interim assessments to ensure that the goals are being met and if not, then modifications are made. Below is a roadmap for developing a coherent learning community that incorporates academia, essential skills, and pedagogy to build a consistent learning journey for all shareholders.

Let us start with the STEM Happens Network, SHN, Cycle of Learning. First, an understanding of the essentials of an integrated STEM unit must be addressed. There is a need to review Standards (NGSS, Literacy, Numeracy and Engineering Practices), Framework for Teaching (planning and implementation are key components), and Essential Skills (teamwork, perseverance, resiliency, determination, etc.). This will take several workshops and continuous assessment to ensure that all shareholders are deepening their conceptual understanding of how to develop integrated STEM units that are inclusive. This approach will guide students through a cohesive learning journey that connects the dots for them to make sense of learning.

The SHN Cycle of Learning:

The Essentials of Integrated STEM

During the initial training, the focus is: Understanding Disciplinary Literacy: What makes STEM integration possible in planning?

In order to build an integrated STEM learning journey plan that will deepen their conceptual understanding of why we do this and how it is to be accomplished, the learning journey for all shareholders starts by understanding conceptually NGSS and how to differentiate between Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI), phenomena, design challenges, what essential skills are needed, and in units assessments that will measure student progress in all areas.

The learning journey begins by emphasizing each content area to be included in the integrated STEM units; introducing participants to work with the NGSS idea that phenomena should be driving scientific investigation in classrooms; and thinking about how we use design-based inquiry to assess these phenomena and weave in a deep core of literacy, using texts to support student understanding of related history and previous scientific discovery. Argument writing is a lever that can be used to integrate all content areas for students to have a robust integrated learning experience. Therefore, shareholders must be exposed to writing argument, reading standards, and connecting science and math standards by expanding definitions of claims, warrants, and evidence.

To ensure that we are allowing access to all learners, time must be spent looking at how to scaffold assessment and text so that the curriculum invites all students. Tools like the Depth of Knowledge, DOK, rubric to assess the complexity of our tasks and to “line them up” on the scale to develop rigor are used. Also, using text complexity gradient to assess the texts teachers are introducing to students – examining all aspects such as vocabulary, sentence structure, and knowledge demands. These tools, along with a mathematical task analysis guide, create equity for all learners as they bring learners in at their place of comfort, not necessarily the most comfortable place for the teacher of 25+ students; creating access for all. Planning like this requires training and working within a professional learning community to learn and practice strategies.

By thinking through how to build a unit using all of these components, teachers can build their first unit of study integrating the core content areas and other shareholders understand the complexity of this work.

As integrated STEM units are built, teachers begin to implement lessons and using the units to learn more about what will be viable instructional tools and engaging content for students. The 5E model of planning (Bibbey) is used and time must be spent on breaking down the myth that a lesson plan is something that lasts 45 minutes (silo approach); using the 5E model and thinking beyond one class period, students will have a strong framework within which to connect core ideas. Teachers need to be exposed to model lesson plans, deconstruct them together (teachers and administrators) and during classroom walkthroughs, helping teachers create strong libraries to use resources effectively and essential skills that need to be incorporated in units and lessons. Teachers need to work vertically, and be given the opportunities (along with the tools!) to visit with each other while the work is happening to provide real time feedback on using something like the 5E model.

To bridge the communication gap that often exists between teachers and administrators as it relates to content, principals must be reintroduced to the Three Dimensions of Science Learning, NGSS along with the Three Dimensions: Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Disciplinary Core Ideas. Principals and shareholders are reintroduced to the concept of phenomena, engaging in discussion and videos describing the importance of phenomena in STEM learning. Activities are conducted, which models teamwork and inference skills that are needed to decide if certain questions were considered phenomena, disciplinary core ideas, or a design challenge. This task exposes principals and shareholders, making them more aware of understanding what the teachers are learning and what to begin to look for in integrated STEM lessons while conducting classroom visits.

Effective planning is key to integrating STEM across content areas and incorporating essential skills needed for students to be successful and positive contributors to the workforce. Creating a link between planning and pedagogy:

A study in the Framework for Teaching

Using the Framework for Teaching (Danielson), our focus is to build a conceptual understanding for shareholders to fully comprehend the importance of these components in planning viable lessons that will engage and challenge students intellectually.

1E: Designing Coherent Instruction – – – a close study of how to plan 3C: Engaging Students in Learning – – – a focus on the difference between hands-on and minds on engagement and the types of teaching that make an impact. 3B: Questioning— using DOK to strategically develop questions that will elicit needed essential skills students must have to connect their learning 3D: Monitoring of Student Learning – – – a close study of formative and summative assessment and embedding them to drive instruction and instructional decision making The Framework for Teaching sits at the heart of the instructional core. Schools purchase prefabricated curricula, but teachers need to be able to connect and extrapolate by developing Integrated STEM units that lead to incremental lesson planning that assesses students progress. That is where time and energy should be spent. This is hard work, but if it is done with the utmost fidelity, students will be engaged and will be inquisitive learners. Developing the capacity of shareholders in understanding the importance of this tool so it can be used to develop our teachers and to support administrators in this process. The process to expose shareholders is to start by differentiating the learning plan so each cadre of shareholders can be exposed to the tool and deepen the learning for the practitioners by deconstructing the rubric and examining models of different level examples. As a result, teachers can connect with and understand it more comfortably. It is imperative for them to understand the importance of becoming familiar with this tool and how it improves their practice. Supervisors need to also understand how to use tools to provide support and guidance for their teachers. Supervisors are trained on how to use “Classroom Observation Guide for Supervisors”; they are shown what to look for in a well-designed integrated STEM lesson using the components of the Danielson’s Framework for Teaching Model. After review of a few sample lessons, supervisors are asked to provide actionable feedback to teachers and provide the support needed to strengthen the teacher learning. Also, they are asked to make the connection and discuss where they saw the 7 Indicators of a good Integrated STEM lesson as it relates to literacy, numeracy, engineering practices, science standards and essential skills that should all be part of the integrated STEM lesson.

The STEM Happens Network believes that by connecting administrator and teacher work, as well other shareholders, we help to bridge the gaps in teacher/administration communication, using Danielson to shape our understanding of best practice and to ensure a strong feedback loop. SHN values the role that feedback plays in a school culture – whether it is student to student, teacher to student, administrator to teacher – feedback is vital to moving the work forward. “The work” is planning effective learning experiences that integrate STEM and build student literacy and numeracy skills as connected to the real world. SHN values sharing best practices and by creating a safe space for our learning community to exist. We engage in many gallery walks, school presentations, and competitions. Also, encouraging inter-classroom visitation and using coaches to support the development of instructional strategies.

A key element of SHN’s work is not only providing project-based learning but also creating the space for school teams to collaborate both with themselves and other schools in a protected space that encourages creative thinking and creates rigorous learning experiences for ALL students. At each Integrated STEM Academy, participants not only engage in developing skills but also in deliberate planning time for them to develop integrated STEM units and lessons aligned to the demands of the NGSS and Literacy, Numeracy, and Engineering Standards.

SHN’s human-centered approach to adult learning aligns with the Framework for Great Schools in that we develop a trusting relationship with all staff to drive systemic change in the way teachers plan, use integrated STEM, collaborate, and strengthen support for improving academic outcomes for ALL students. By developing a learning community that encompasses all shareholders, we strongly believe that we will improve pedagogy in all our schools and teachers will plan strategically integrated lessons that will address the equity and access concerns in the instructional core.

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