As the accountability stakes continue to grow for school districts, more and more time is spent on developing students’ language arts and math skills. Knowing that schools and districts who earn high ratings/grades attract more students and positively impact a community’s economic value, districts feel forced to narrow curriculum and content to that which might be on the test. At the same time, teachers, administrators, curriculum experts, research specialists and education officials publish information to inform and help us understand the sense of urgency to engage students in more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) content, skills and activities.
Therefore, the big question becomes: are educators willing to challenge themselves and take risks to enhance and blend their curriculum with STEM curriculum and activities?
School districts across the nation implement a variety of instructional models and programs to engage students in STEM activities. East Noble School Corporation (ENSC) is one of those districts. This rural school district located in Kendallville, Indiana, serves 3,700 students and utilizes a variety of ways to expose and engage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics starting as early as kindergarten. The district and community believe that the earlier students are exposed to college and career opportunities, the more choices that will be available to them upon high school graduation and the more likely they will be successful with their choice.
Before students can imagine pursuing a STEM career – or other career – it is important that they realize they may dream big, and they can achieve at high levels. To promote that attitude, ENSC elementary and middle school frameworks are embedded and designed around a college attendance expectation. All teachers adopt a college, university or military branch and throughout the school year, students learn about these organizations, visit area institutions, engage with their students using technology, learn about the education pathways offered by these institutions and create an attitude of “no excuses allowed.”
This exposure, prior to high school, provides students with a belief that training beyond high school is needed regardless of the chosen career or college. The district high school’s theme of “a high school diploma is not enough” drives a career pathway model that allows students to begin narrowing their career choice and focusing on coursework and experiences which are directly related to a family of careers that interests them the most. Five of the six pathways are strongly influenced by STEM opportunities and involves approximately 93 percent of the 1,200 students:
- Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
- Arts and Communications
- Business and Information Technology
- Engineering, Manufacturing and Technology
- Health and Related Services
These pathways guide students through course selection, community engagement, internships, career and technical education options, and large group cross-curricular activities and utilize project-based learning throughout all courses.
According to the Occupational Outlook Quarterly, “STEM workers use their knowledge of science, technology, engineering or math to try to understand how the world works and to solve problems.” The number of STEM career openings is expected to grow by 12 percent or 1 million jobs by the year 2022 with a median wage of $76,000 (Occupational Outreach Quarterly, spring 2014, www.bls.gov/ooq). With this knowledge, it become essential for schools to examine how they provide students with resources to help them better understand the dynamics of the world around them and develop their problem solving skills. Textbooks are nice, visits to universities are enlightening, guest speakers help create an image of the work environment, but a work experience is the “real world.” However, these resources are still limiting.
In 2011, East Noble School Corporation made a commitment to its students and community to provide the resources that students need to be career- and college-ready. These resources needed to better expose students to a limitless educational environment that allows students to drive their own learning at any time and any place. When school began in the fall of 2011, all 3,700 students in the district were provided a technology device. District-wide Wi-Fi was installed and bandwidth increased to 227MB per student, more than double the federal recommendation. Today, students in kindergarten through fourth grade are given a tablet which remains in their classroom and every student in grades 5 through 12 are provided a Windows-based laptop which goes home with them daily. These tools have completely transformed how content is delivered, teacher pedagogy and how students learn. Student engagement significantly has increased as instruction shifts from teacher-led to student-driven.
As you would expect, the math, science, technology and engineering teachers have had little difficulty integrating STEM activities into their lessons. However, a better litmus test of integration lies in the progress our English teachers have made. With the use of technology, these teachers now have outstanding opportunities and resources to bring STEM to life in their classes.
Whether districts implement a structured model or a more broad-based, cross-curricular model to integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics into their curriculum and culture, the dynamics of the workforce and our economy demand more adults skilled in these areas. It is not only possible but also critical that we place student exposure before testing and provide these skills that will provide our students more career choices and thus a stronger economy.
Below are examples submitted by two East Noble High School English teachers.
When reading literature, there may be a topic or question about the sciences. For example, when reading Life of Pi students may explore “How long can a person survive without food or water on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean?” or tackle the question of “What are the effects of high altitude on the brain and lungs?” in Into Thin Air.
Ninth grade English teacher, Elizabeth Atz, encourages students in her class to explore the science behind these concept and others like them through several resources:
- SciShow: Science news and information, hosted by Hank Green.
How about 3 Neat Facts About Narwhals (Including: They're Real!)?
- MinutePhysics: Simple illustrations for scientific concepts.
Some are short (Fahrenheit, Celsius and Kelvin), while some are more complex (Parallel Universes).
- MinuteEarth: Same people as MinutePhysics tackling environmental issues.
- AsapSCIENCE: More interesting science-y ideas with dry-erase illustrations.
- The Brain Scoop: An inside look at some of the exciting specimens at Chicago's Field Museum.
- SmarterEveryDay: Learn something new about the everyday world –
with SCIENCE! Like Balloons, for example.
- Crash Course Chemistry: Solutions, water, energy, atoms, alkenes and alkynes.
- Crash Course Biology: From carbon to DNA to life to body systems to plants to animals.
Matt Rickey, a twelfth grade English and Advanced Placement (AP) English teacher, also has his students explore STEM activities through literature.
“I have my students study an author named Malcolm Gladwell who has written a series of non-fiction books that takes a look at data/statistics and delves into the interpretation of them beyond the pure numbers. The book we read in class is called Outliers. But, to prepare for reading this book, I go over excerpts of other books that he has written (e.g., The Tipping Point, Blink, David and Goliath) and have my students research from a series of his articles published in the The New Yorker. Lastly, we touch upon two economists (Levitt and Dubner), who wrote Freakonomics, who have their own interpretation of data. One interesting example of data all three authors (Gladwell, Levitt, Dunbar) study is the reason for the decline of violent crime in New York City during the 1990s. They all look at the same data but have disparate theories. The point is that if one does nothing but look at the numbers/data to make evaluations about an event (e.g., crime, divorce, school success/failure, etc.), they are missing a lot of information. There is more to the data than meets the eye…and my students find out through these three authors that no one has the absolute answer.”