Linda Hobbs, Associate Professor in Science Education at Deakin University, looks at the need for effective professional development in STEM subjects.
As teachers and schools embrace the challenge of interpreting what the subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) needs to be for their school, STEM professional development (PD) opportunities are becoming increasingly common, some at considerable cost, and some through Government intervention.
STEM is not an explicit part of the Australian or state curricula in Australia, therefore PD or resources tagged as STEM can vary in content, applicability and usefulness for schools. A PD program delivered by Deakin University, ‘Successful Students – STEM’ (STEM Program) was designed to respond to teacher and school needs rather than as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to STEM. Where previous large or medium scale interventions use PD based on delivering specific programs or practices, unique to the STEM Program was the encouragement of schools to develop their own approach to conceptualising and implementing STEM that makes the best use of their resources. A STEM Vision framework, informed by other successful Deakin-led professional development programs, provided a common language for teachers to reflect on their practice and develop new and innovative curriculum initiatives.
Contemporary pedagogies informed by leading research supported teachers’ pedagogical developments. In particular, problem- and project-based learning, design-based learning, inquiry learning through a representation construction approach, digital technology, and exposure to 21st century technologies were the basis of workshop intensives. Teachers participated in four PD cycles comprised of university-based two-day intensives, school-based implementation of new programs over approximately 10 weeks, then a university-based reporting day where teachers shared their initiatives and planned for future initiatives. A Deakin STEM project officer provided invaluable support for teachers in the schools.
Schools and industry working together
One part of the STEM Program was to support schools to use local industries as contexts for STEM learning. Five schools established links with people from local industries. One school established links with Baum Cycles, Marand and Ford as part of a vehicle construction project integrating Science, Mathematics, Technology and Art; this school has made industry-links their ‘point of difference’ and a priority within the school’s ‘STEAM Vision’ (STEAM being Stem with the addition of Arts). The other schools made links with representatives from Barwon Water (river to sea science unit), Redine Constructions (3-D in mathematics), CSIRO Animal Health Laboratories (debate on environmental issues), and ANZ business banking centre (algebra and simultaneous equations applied to modelling of bank loans). This involvement of industry provided the students with an authentic experience of high-tech STEM related industries and raised student awareness of potential future STEM pathways.
The evaluation showed that the content of the activity or learning sequence worked best when: the story of the industry person’s career trajectory could be incorporated in some way, the content was related to the skill set of the industry person, the activity was mapped to the curriculum, and teachers selected areas of the curriculum that they were struggling to connect to students’ life or that were difficult to do well.
Another observation was that teachers’ awareness and/or experience of contemporary high-tech manufacturing or industrial processes was limited and conversely, industry partners’ understanding of the education process and pedagogy was equally limited. Overcoming this disconnect was crucial and involved careful brokering of relationships between partners to match goals and ensure delivery arrangements were practical and fit for purpose. The broker and Deakin’s STEM Program Officer were essential in facilitating this process.
Outcomes for schools
The main outcome has been a wide variety of STEM curriculum initiatives involving different combinations of the STEM subjects, for example, single subject programs, and integrated programs incorporating science/mathematics, science/technology or science/technology/mathematics/arts. Linking with 21st-century technologies and industries was a key focus for schools. By the fourth PD cycle, many of the schools had multiple initiatives occurring at multiple year levels, and included both curricular and extra-curricular activities.
Teachers indicated that the program was successful because it was longitudinal in nature, included formal professional development and ongoing support, fostered a community of teacher learners who were willing to share and take risks, responded to teacher and school needs, and gave teachers time and space to reflect, plan and change beliefs and practice.
Comments from those involved included:
“I have been given the time to work with other staff to create and implement some real-world STEM investigations in Year 7 and 8 Mathematics, which have now been embraced by other staff.”
“Requiring that the participants develop a unit of work, deliver the unit of work and report on it, I think that’s probably the most important thing out of all of it.”
Teachers reported that using problem solving taught them to take risks and relinquish control of the learning (“letting go of the reins”). Many reported that there was more intense and focused reflection on their teaching and curriculum reform, one teacher reporting doing “more review of the program than we would’ve done otherwise, and that feedback was really empowering and positive”. Teachers also reported being more adept at supporting students to engage in problem solving, mathematical reasoning and engaging with the design process, and that they were more confident with linking content to students’ lives.
Academic leadership in STEM education
As demonstrated through this program, academic leadership can play a significant role in supporting schools to embrace STEM innovation.
Academic leadership enables a research-informed and coordinated approach to providing a common language around STEM, but flexibility in responding to and meeting the respective needs of each school. The STEM Program took a flexible, school-directed approach to building an expectation of sustained, school-generated, evidence-based change. Negotiation with schools is critical to this flexibility and can only occur where there are ongoing and trusting relationships that are built over time.
Academic leadership can provide a coordinated approach to development and promotion of STEM education at a regional level. A STEM Education conference in 2016 (and forthcoming in 2018) and a STEM teacher network coordinated by the STEM Program were examples of Deakin staff working with and for schools in the region to share innovation and promote cross sector interaction. Also, universities can play a vital role in brokering meaningful links with members of local industries, companies and community groups.
Academic leadership can support schools to generate a body of evidence of the impact of the school-based initiatives. Documenting such evidence can, for example: mobilise future buy-in from other teachers at the school, the school parent communities, and other schools; attract the attention of governments/policy makers and funding bodies; and provide evidence to support career advancement for the participating teachers.
In recognition of the teacher learning and curriculum innovation, the participating teachers can receive Credit for Prior Learning for two units within the Deakin Graduate Certificate in STEM Education.