Getting to the Core of STEM by Carole R. Collins Ayanlaja, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer

Spotlight on Excellence     May 2013

 

Getting to the Core of STEM by Carole R. Collins Ayanlaja, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has been a part of educational vocabulary for several years.  With increasing economic competitiveness between nations, education which integrates math, science, and technology concepts to support student problem solving, discovery, exploratory learning, and engagement, is of benefit to students.   The STEM approach is designed to modernize the teaching of subject areas such as mathematics and science by connecting both subjects and incorporating technology and engineering to make learning active and relevant to the real world.

The STEM initiative grew to address the disparate achievement in math and science, among students. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), a test administered in over 67 countries designed to measure students’ knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics, and science literacy in the context of everyday situations, has shown that of developed countries, in recent years, American students have ranked 21 out of 30 in science performance and 25 out of 30 in math performance. (www.whitehouse.gov).

The gap between American students and students in other developing countries reveals a chasm that can negatively impact the U.S. work force in STEM-related careers.  Further, Latino, African American, Native American, and students of all races living in poverty, have shown a more pronounced disconnect from math and science, reflected in lower achievement levels and smaller numbers of students choosing STEM careers. Boys and girls of all races, cultures, and economic backgrounds are very capable of achieving in math and science.  Many role models represent the diversity of STEM achievement among Americans. Noted greats include, African American surgeon, Dr. Benjamin Carson, who successfully separated conjoined twins and Latino scientist, Mario Molina, who earned a Ph.D. and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on ozone-formation. Today, many leading women have a visible role in current STEM initiatives including EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (an engineer) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco (a marine scientist).

The responsibility lies with our schools to provide multiple opportunities for all of our children to learn in a supportive classroom environment where teachers have access to stimulating math and science curriculum that engages all students. Today, the national Educate to Innovate commitment emphasizes STEM literacy throughout the country. Organizations advocate for policies to expand capacity and diversify the employees in STEM workplaces so that women, minorities, veterans, and students from rural environments are more present in STEM fields.  Teachers are focused on answering, “How do we create a classroom environment where all learners have the opportunity to achieve at high levels in math and science?” “What approach must we take every day to engage students and prepare them for a college and exposure to STEM careers?

Hartford Public Schools’ increased focus on integrating math and science is in alignment with a growing national interest around the discussion of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). NGSS are being developed through a collaborative cross country process, similar to Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  NGSS strives to approach science through:
1.    Real world exploration
2.    Performance expectations, not a standard curriculum
3.    Coherence, grades K-12
4.    Focus on content and application of content
5.    Science and Engineering integration
6.    Aligned to CCSS (NGSS Public Release II, Jan 2013)

In HPS’ Office of Academics, STEM education is a focus. Under the leadership of the districts’ STEM Director, Dr. Sandra Inga, STEM Teachers-in- Residence, Ralph Minaya and Brandi Lumpris assist with curriculum development and implementation, along with professional learning to support teachers. In alignment with the HPS’ Strategic Operating Plan, the team is developing STEM instructional units to provide teachers with lessons that engage students in scientific inquiry. Dr.Inga emphasizes,” we will only begin to close the STEM-achievement gap, when students really see that STEM is an excellent career option and when all educators see and encourage students to enter STEM-fields. This starts early.”

In May, PreK-12 HPS students will participate in the 1st annual STEM Exposition, which encourages student interest, recognizes work, and exposes students to scientists, doctors, engineers and other STEM professionals. In the fall, HPS, in conjunction with the Connecticut Science Center, the University of Hartford, St. Francis Hospital, and East Hartford Public Schools will host the 2nd Annual STEM Conference. This event fosters collaboration among different districts/educational and community organizations and showcases the excellent STEM-themed schools in Hartford including, STEM @ Annie Fisher, Principal Melony Fisher; Environmental Sciences @ Mary Hooker, Principal Peter Dart; and University High School of Science and Engineering, Principal Matt Folan.    Teachers, administrators, business leaders, university professionals, and community organizations share information and learn about engaging instruction and resources.  

Peter Dart emphasizes that the STEM approach allows students to identify their own experiences from their backyards, streams, ponds, gardens, labs, and classrooms and apply them to the natural world. Referring to how STEM addresses the needs of all students, Mr. Dart says, “STEM gives [students] the tools and experiences to excel whether their journey to school is 20 steps across a city street or 20 miles from the suburbs.” Integrating science, technology, engineering and math in the classroom, and affording students opportunities to identify characteristics of bridges or test the durability of skyscraper models under earth quake like conditions, is not a fad academic program.  It has a functional academic purpose!  Activities that develop critical problem solving skills with real world focus open the doors to achievement, college, and careers.  When we embrace and activate STEM as an engaging multi-disciplinary approach to learning, we build interest, options, and the intellect for success that ensures all of our students have access and opportunity.

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