STEM expert Dr Kathy Smith, from Monash University, discusses the challenges of STEM education and how we can learn from the work currently being done by primary teachers.
What is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education? It is difficult for teachers to provide a succinct and clear response to this question because they know they are dealing with more than a simple acronym. In their eyes, STEM education embodies professional responsibilities to students and families, professional accountability to both curriculum and assessment regimes, and concerns about their personal ability to support every student in all STEM areas. Through the eyes of teachers, STEM education involves much more than economic rhetoric of future jobs and national competitiveness in global markets. Teachers face a different professional reality.
The descriptions of STEM education that teachers share with me in response to this question are insightful. They cite the importance of developing critical thinkers to solve real world problems and the need to develop learning approaches which enable students to: understand the ethical/moral/historical implications of authentic world problems; design solutions through innovation and experimentation; find different ways of thinking; use a hands-on approach working within multifaceted teams that value collaboration; and evaluate a solution and the impact of a chosen approach. Teachers know what matters in STEM education. The next big challenge is: how do they make this happen in their school and with their class?
While it is still early days, primary schools have started to lead the way, showing that STEM education can be successfully embedded within whole school practice. For many schools this happens in small steps as staff work to develop careful and considered approaches. Noticing what these teachers are paying attention to as they do this may provide some valuable insights about how to effectively develop STEM education at all levels.
It appears valuable for staff to work together to determine the key attributes that are most important for learners. Staff at St Joseph’s Primary School in Hawthorn, Victoria, have developed a list of aspirational dispositions and while this is not intended to be seen as definitive, it is a statement about what they agree is important for their students at this point in time. These aspirations include students being flexible and responsive to circumstance, creative and critical thinkers, effective and articulate communicators, and informed and active citizens, etc. STEM education would clearly add value to the development of the dispositions identified by the staff at St Joseph’s. In this context, STEM education adds value to the school’s learning agenda.
Reaching a consensus about preferred teaching approaches is also important as these decisions guide teacher planning. Many primary schools already use schoolwide approaches to learning and teaching, e.g. integrated inquiry. The International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Program, characterised by an inquiry led, transdisciplinary framework, is an example of such an approach. This approach provides opportunity for primary teachers to challenge students to think for themselves and take responsibility for their learning. In IB schools, teachers are expected to use this approach to explore local and global issues and opportunities in real-life contexts. These types of learning experiences complement many of the underlying intentions which teachers described for STEM education. The transdisciplinary approach also has the potential to explore the nature of the knowledge which defines each STEM discipline while examining how each brings a unique lens to problem solving. Following a consistent planning approach across a school ensures that STEM education is embedded within existing teaching and learning.
Finding STEM opportunities in existing units
Supporting teachers to find STEM learning opportunities within existing teaching units allows teachers to work with familiar topics in different ways. ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Change’ are inquiry topics commonly embedded within the planning cycles of many primary schools. A teacher who encouraged a group of Year 6 boys to address an existing waste problem within the school by working to design an interactive rubbish bin for students in the junior levels, opened the opportunity for these students to showcase their work at a sector-wide event. Through a partnership with a local community conservation group, another teacher enabled students to develop a water pollution filter for use in a local waterway. Finding opportunities within existing units is a great place to start.
Seeking outside expertise
Primary teachers also readily identify a need to enhance the skills and knowledge they bring to STEM education. As generalist teachers, many actively seek the involvement of expertise from the wider community. Some schools acknowledge the expertise of parents by inviting them to participate in class activities and contribute to ongoing projects.
Parents are invited as guest speakers; and engineers, health workers, electricians, builders, chefs, etc. are all sourced from the local school community. Other primary schools are reaching out to establish mutually beneficial partnerships with local community organisations and approaching local businesses to support the supply of STEM materials when budgets are limited.
STEM education is exciting but also challenging. While teachers know what matters for their students’ learning, it is sometimes difficult to find ways to effectively develop school-based STEM education. There may be much to learn from the simple steps that primary schools are taking to develop careful and considered approaches.