3 Key Ingredients for Successful STEM Implementation: Trust, Collaboration, and Innovative Thinking

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A recent Education Week blog post entitled “STEM Reforms in Needy Schools Eroded Quickly” painted a disappointing picture of STEM education reform. In this post, part 2 of a 2-part series* from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), Adaliz Gonzalez (the Citywide Instructional Lead for Middle School Science in the Department of STEM at the New York City Department of Education) responds.


Common definitions of STEM focus on the seamless integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Such integration works well when teachers, who are the experts and responsible parties of delivery of instruction in schools, have initial training, time to plan collaboratively, and (most important) common belief about how students learn best. The National Research Council has stated (and it is well known) that state assessments are not aligned to any STEM program, nor do they assess students’ performance in the progression of knowledge as STEM programs deliver instruction. Therefore, schools districts or schools interested in developing and incorporating STEM programs should think about (1) ways to integrate formative and summative assessments that evaluate student performance around content knowledge and skills necessary in STEM education, and (2) the development of performance tasks that can be used as interim assessments aligned to STEM education and that can inform teachers and school leaders about students’ readiness for state assessments.

Ask the Right Questions, Right from the Beginning

Districts such as Buffalo and Denver implemented STEM programs in struggling schools as a way to remediate and/or motivate students. However, the question for these districts should be: What needs assessments were conducted that informed plans about the deficiencies of students and pedagogy and that would inform sudden reforms that included implementing STEM programs? What steps were taken to help develop a shared vision and to understand teachers’ beliefs about how these students learn best (as well as the common interest combined with aspirations prior to implementing STEM programs in struggling schools)? Part of the failure of STEM programs could be the result of jumping onto the STEM bandwagon too quickly and pushing programs without proper training and transition and without taking into consideration the complexity of what STEM in schools encompasses.

The report states that programs “were cut or watered down, due in part to challenges balancing graduation requirements and STEM courses, accountability measures, and students’ preparedness.” The conclusion is that no one can measure the effectiveness of a program that is implemented one year and then changed over the next few years to meet different requirements. Second, state accountability measures, students’ preparedness, scheduling and teacher programs, and graduation requirements are part of a thoughtful planning process that must happen prior to implementation.

For effective implementation of STEM programs, school leaders need to ensure that there is a gradual change in the school culture, creating one that nurtures trust, collaboration, and innovative thinking. Second, schools in which most of the population receives free or reduced lunch depend greatly on federal and state funds as well as grants that can enhance what is offered to students to enrich their academic repertoire and provide them with a different perspective on how they can use their knowledge and expand their perspective of the career world. However, one common mistake made by schools is to allow their vision to be shaped by these programs and grants, which commonly run out and end after a period of time. Prior to implementing any program or applying for grants, schools teams need to ask: How will this initiative enhance our current curricular offerings? How can this STEM program be a sustainable practice?

Creating STEM programs in schools must do four basic things:

  • Create a shared vision and culture of trust, collaboration, and innovative thinking.
  • Develop curriculum guides and instructional programs that include integration of content, development of skills across subjects, and extracurricular activities aligned to students’ interest and instructional offerings.
  • Have a plan to align the use of resources, human capital, outside organizations, school and outside funds toward achieving the vision for STEM education, as well as aligning key partnerships that will contribute to a sustainable culture and the following of best practices in STEM education.
  • Provide all students with opportunities and awareness of requirements to be highly motivated and pursue STEM careers and college paths.

Successful STEM reform addresses these issues from the start. I will be presenting examples of schools that implemented STEM programs, creating sustainable practices that promoted successful implementation of STEM education, on November 7 in the NSTA Virtual Conference Shifting to Integrated STEM: Experiences of Three School Districts. My co-presenters and I will give several examples in which systemic changes have brought about significant improvements in STEM teaching and learning. We will also discuss what it takes to implement such changes, including the absolute requirement of support by top leaders. Learn more and register. Register early by Friday, October 9, and save $10 off your registration fee: Use promo code NOV_SAVE10.

GonzalezAdaliz Gonzalez is the Citywide Instructional Lead for Middle School Science in the Department of STEM at the New York City Department of Education. She served as a science and math teacher for eighth grade bilingual students in Inwood Intermediate School in New York City for over ten years, and as a Peer Instructional Coach, mentoring colleagues in the understanding using the new teacher reflection rubric.

*Read Part 1: Successful STEM Reform: Leadership Is Key

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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4 Comments

  1. Mary Bernhardt
    Posted October 5, 2015 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I am the New STEM teacher at a Title 1 school in Lexington, KY. Everything I am reading seems to apply more to regular self contained classrooms. I have not come across much dedicated to the STEM teacher who has a lab, but is on a 5 day rotation seeing 500+ students a week (K-5). I definitely love this and am an advocate for promoting it. Do you know of anything related to STEM used as a rotation? Curriculum, activities, funding sources?

  2. Adaliz Gonzalez
    Posted October 5, 2015 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mary,

    The examples that we will present at the Virtual Conference address many situations; from inclusion classes to bilingual students and gifted and talented classes as well. The possibilities for implementing STEM programs are endless and Cary Snyder, Mariel Milano and I will be discussing in detail many aspects for successful STEM programs that have been implemented for quite some time now.

    Hope to see you there. 🙂

  3. Arthur Camins
    Posted October 7, 2015 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Good points about the support teachers will need. However, I think we need a lot more discussion, debate and research about what we mean by STEM integration.
    See: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/leadership_360/2015/06/what_is_this_thing_called_stem.html

  4. Brian Crosby
    Posted October 26, 2015 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Besides the narrowing out of the curriculum almost everything that supports STEM learning which is not just the subjects depicted in the acronym STEM, by assuming “research based” programs in ELA and math (often partially to totally scripted) that dominated the daily schedule (especially in elementary school) we also drove project/problem-based and inquiry learning out off the curriculum. And we did so for close to 15 years now. That means too many teachers that have as much as 15 years+ experience (which would usually reflect an experienced teacher, have no skills or experiences in those areas.

    In addition, because of the culture and toxic environment fostered in schools over many years, where fear was utilized to keep teachers in line to “do the program with fidelity or you don’t have the best interests of children in mind.” Now that “supposedly” we want science, STEM, art and more included, many teachers don’t trust that that is really true. We are still ramping up holding teachers accountable to test scores, which mostly don’t include STEM, art, etc. (maybe in the future) … so teachers are VERY wary of investing much time and energy in STEM.

    Also, as pointed out somewhat in your post, what STEM learning REALLY is has to be defined succinctly, … not to the point where we confine things too much, but so that STEM learning can’t be misconstrued. I’ve been in planning sessions where a grade level planning looks like this: Well, science … we’re going to start doing science for 30 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday so “check” that’s the “S”. And we go to the computer lab every week for 30 to 45 minutes, so “check” that’s the “T”. On Friday the last half hour we’ll fold paper airplanes, so that’s the “E”, and we do math everyday! So we are already a STEM school and we didn’t even know it!!!

    STEM is a culture, not a time of day or day of the week! (although certainly you can have a planned time for some parts, but the goal should be to build that culture).

    So our focus definitely has to be making sure STEM isn’t watered down (like edtech has been from the start) in very poor implementation that leads people to see it as a failed concept. We already have schools that label themselves as STEM Academies because of some grant or other mandate. The staff didn’t initiate the implementation, it was just thrust upon them. No buy in. Just do enough to claim we’re STEM. That will ruin the concept … and a strong STEM program is also the best ELA/math program there is. IMHO

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