The STEM Effect
By Candy Garner
Certain buzz words and topics come and go in the arena of education. Currently, the word to know is STEM, the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. When asked last year to serve as the STEM/Curriculum Coordinator in my district, I began to read everything I could find on the topic of STEM. I attended conferences and visited schools where STEM professional development was provided. At one such conference, I heard a speaker share statistics relating to how far the United States lagged in college student representation for STEM related fields. My own research confirmed what the speaker had shared. I was suddenly determined to do my part in flipping those numbers. A “Tradition of Excellence” has long been the motto for Winfield City Schools where I am employed. This motto has manifested itself in several forms that includes research-based instructional practices resulting in high academic achievement. As a system, we began to search for ways to integrate best practices for STEM instruction into our classrooms on a daily basis.
In rural communities, students are limited in the career choices they are exposed to regularly. For example, in our community students see teachers, coaches, nurses, and bank tellers as common career choices. While these are all great jobs in respected fields, as educators, we owe it to our students to introduce them to a plethora of career choices. Teachers should feel obligated to expose students to a wide variety of careers, encouraging them to find where and how they can have the greatest, positive impact on the world in which they will work and live. As a faculty, we began to meet in both horizontal and vertical alignment meetings to determine changes we needed to make to better prepare our students for the 21st Century. District-wide, we eliminated the status quo of rows of desks and replaced them with tables and collaborative learning environments. Project-based learning was encouraged as was ongoing STEM challenges. Robotics began in our Pre-K programs and continued with natural progression through the high school grades as students joined competitive rocketry and robotics teams. Dr. Keith Davis, our system superintendent, encouraged teachers to embed STEM in their instruction as a methodology, not just an activity. The engineering design process was used in most classrooms as a guideline for STEM challenges across disciplines.
A common thread during a time of change in any organization is doubt, expressed by some of our faculty members. To help these teachers make a smooth transition into the STEM mindset, STEM boxes were filled and delivered each grading period. The boxes contained activities and supplies to enhance lessons teachers had planned for their students based on grade level standards. These activities encouraged teachers to use the engineering design process. As a result, they became more confident as they blended traditional instruction with new pedagogical methods. As we embraced these instructional methods, we knew we wanted confirmation that we were, in fact, doing what was needed and what was best for our students.
AdvancED is the largest accrediting service in the world, and our system had been an accredited institution for many years. Recently, AdvancED determined there needed to be a standard procedure to measure if a school was, in fact, a STEM school, providing quality STEM instruction. We opted for our elementary and middle school to go through the AdvancED STEM Certification process in February of this year. Following rigorous guidelines and submitting much evidence online, a team from AdvancED came to our school to visit our classrooms, our facilities, and met both teachers and students. On February 14th, Winfield Elementary and Winfield Middle School became the first AdvancED STEM Certified schools in the state of Alabama. As a faculty, we are proud of this accomplishment. We know we are providing our students with a quality education that will equip them to be life-long learners in this ever-changing world.
The instructional changes I’ve described here are only a sampling of what we incorporated into our curriculums. The excitement proved to be contagious. Our high school will be participating in the STEM certification process in the fall. As I make my way down the halls, I am continuously invited by teachers and students to see the things they are doing in class. From first graders coding Bee-Bots to sixth graders Skyping with U.S. military officers to help solve water shortage problems for our troops in Afghanistan, we have proven there is no limit to what can be done by students who are engaged in the learning process. Moving forward it is our goal to welcome visitors from other schools to share the things we have learned thus far on this journey. We are determined to not only equip our students, but to also provide what assistance we can to fellow educators as we all strive to do the best for the students who have been entrusted to us. Our world of tomorrow will be revolutionized by the students of today.
Candy Garner is the STEM/Curriculum Coordinator at Winfield City Schools in Winfield City, Alabama.