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Teaching STEM: Challenging Students to Think Through Tough Problems

By Room 241 Team May 17, 2016

Teaching STEMSTEM teachers face an interesting challenge. They want their students to learn problem-solving and critical thinking skills, yet the world they’re preparing their students for doesn’t exist.

We asked one of our MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: STEAM faculty members to discuss the challenges teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and possible solutions to those obstacles. In addition to teaching Concordia University-Portland classes, Stacey Mabray is the principal of George P. Butler High School, where she started her career as a science teacher. Previously, she was the senior director of curriculum and instruction for the Richmond County schools in Augusta, Georgia, and has been a K-12 science curriculum coordinator.

How do you define STEM?

STEM can’t be a static curriculum. Teachers need to move beyond the standard curriculum specific to the four disciplines. It’s more of a process of being able to problem-solve and work through complex and knotty problems so kids can innovate.

STEM can be applied to any industry and is integrated into everything. Students need to be able to innovate and to solve world problems that are not only complex but are relevant and useful. They need to learn the best way, need to go at a problem a thousand times, get it wrong, and then come back at it.

What Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did was garage science that has become integral to everyone’s life. What are the kindergartners of today going to see when they graduate in 13 years?

Why is incorporating STEM in class important for students?

The critical thinking skills and problem-solving elements of the STEM disciplines are an integral part of 21st-century education and life. We are working to prepare students for a world that in many cases has not yet been developed. Teaching them to utilize specific skills and processes gives them a nimbleness of mind that will prepare them for the next level.

What should STEM curriculum look like in the classroom?

A STEM curriculum implementation should be a hands-on problem-based environment where students are working to solve complex problems in collaboration with one another and utilizing technology to add in those problem-solving processes.

What do you believe is the most effective way to teach science and/or mathematics?

The best way to teach math and/or science is experientially. Students build deep conceptual understanding through authentic learning tasks. While that may not always be possible, it is important to present tasks in context and allow students to grapple with content in order to make meaning.

How will you best prepare your students to be successful for a future teaching STEM?

In the graduate course, it is important for students — whether preservice or in-service teachers — to research best practices, create field experiences with the content and pedagogy, and then to reflect on their practice. The nexus of pedagogy, content, and reflective practice are vital for student preparation.

What are some barriers you experience to teaching science and/or mathematics in your class?

One of the major barriers is funding, especially in the area of science. In order to provide students with rich hands-on problem-based tasks, it takes funding for laboratory materials, supplies, and technology.

In mathematics, in order to cement the ideas such as number sense and fact fluency, math manipulatives are essential. Manipulatives provide students with the hands-on tools to make sense of the math instead of relying on rote algorithms.

What types of support would you like to have to improve your ability to teach science and/or mathematics?

Sustained job-embedded professional development is a key support for teaching mathematics and science. In order for teachers to effectively provide students with relevant and authentic tasks, they must continually “sharpen the saw” and collaborate with other professionals to remain current and relevant.

What are some basic steps parents can take to help their children explore STEM?

Parents need to provide their students with experiences that hone their questioning abilities and their observation skills. A walk in the park, a visit to the zoo, a cooking lesson, or building a birdhouse give students an opportunity to question and utilize mathematical thinking.

A parent does not have to have a vast knowledge of science or mathematics to build a foundation. Children are naturally curious, and parents must continue to nurture that curiosity.

Do you think there is a gender inequality in STEM? If so, how can we encourage interest?

Yes, I think that gender inequalities exist in STEM. However, there are initiatives that push for inclusion such as Girls Code Camps and Sisters Science Clubs. Institutions must continue to keep the gender gap on the table as they plan initiatives and programs. Providing specialized opportunities for girls will help to curb the inequalities that exist.

Why is it important for teachers to further their education in this field?

We are preparing students for a world that has not yet been realized, or shall I say, actualized. Teachers are the genesis point of all careers. In order to help 21st-century students maximize their potential, we must be willing to teach and hone students’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

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