Specialized professional development for STEM teaching?

As a STEM professional myself, I know how challenging it can be to both teach fundamental material as well as the applications and higher-order thinking skills asked for by state content standards (at least here in Washington state).  A new KQED Mind/Shift blog post discusses these challenges in the context of how to help teachers gain a foothold into teaching STEM content.

While this post is interesting and highlights some good resources for teachers who need professional development to gain STEM skills so that they can better teach them, the article does little to address the chronic challenges of K-12 teaching and how these pose hurdles to teaching STEM ideas.  If the district requires teaching to standardized tests, and if a teacher’s performance is judged on his or her students’ scores on said test, where is the room for introducing ideas that are critically important but not on the test?  For that matter, the same is true without the spectre of end-of-course exams.

I find that weaving engineering concepts into every lesson is the best way to go, although in my teaching history it has been hard to test the students on these skills explicitly.  To dedicate entire class periods to engineering concepts is almost impossible except when extra time is available (such as in honors classes, where students may move through material more quickly).  More approachable are modifications to the teaching style.  Indirect instruction and inquiry-based learning can quickly build these skills in students.  I miss the old Incredible Machine games – my brothers and I spent countless hours building machines and learning Newtonian physics (although this was never told to us!).  We were given these games outside of school by our parents, but what if some of our schoolwork had been to complete certain challenges within the game?  There is now an iPhone/iPad version of this game available, and I recommend everyone play a few levels.  For $2.99, this is cheap and easy fun!  Makes me wish my Android phone had a version available (hint, hint).  I see much more of this sort of thing now that I ever did growing up.  One robotics class at a local school used simulations of cathedral building to demonstrate force and structures, for example.

The final way to differentiate teaching of STEM to teachers is through the initial training teachers receive to become certified.  I was a student at Seattle Pacific University’s Alternative Routes to Certification program, and there they have an entire cohort dedicated to only math and science teaching, which leads to a completely separate Masters in Teaching Math and Science.  Here STEM is a focus in instruction, as well as inquiry-based learning.  Training teachers to use these approaches from Day 1 seems like a very god way to have them thinking about and incorporating STEM content moving forward.


2 responses to “Specialized professional development for STEM teaching?

  1. Many comments about STEM seem to reflect the ongoing traditions of “silo-thinking”, promoting favored “channels” of instruction, while knocking down other viable approaches for STEM. As a retired instructor of physics, math, and electronics technology at a regional technical college, I continue to be involved in ways that include ALL students in the STEM curriculum as preparation for their lives and careers after high school.

    These STEM goals need change in three directions, I believe, which extend across the grades and the disciplines. First, a systems approach should build the science content topics in the order of increasing complexity. This means that the high school courses need to be flipped to the natural evolutionary sequence of physics, chemistry, and then biology. Second, a clear definition is needed for each step on a ladder of “Basic Workplace Skill Sets” required for entry into the workplace at several occupational levels, beginning with a “Home and Consumer” baseline that matches the state science content standards for all high school graduates. And, finally, students need opportunities to explore various career and technical education (CTE) pathways throughout their high school years, so they can get a taste of where they might apply their abilities, interests, and learning in their productive years.

    In comparison to the many “magic pill” proposals, such a multi-dimensional framework of core content realignment, basic workplace skill steps, and application in career pathways could give us the comprehensive STEM curriculum reform we need for the 21st Century workplace.

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree with what you have said – in particular the part about flipping the order in which we teach science classes. I first heard about this idea in a talk by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman at a talk he gave when I was in college. He has always been a strong advocate for science education and this sort of restructuring in particular. I also think your idea about exposing students to applications early is important – I constantly meet students who don’t see how science is everywhere in their lives, nor how important it will be in their collective future. Real change is indeed hard, but we need to address all students, whether they plan to work in science fields or not, in a comprehensive and engaging fashion.


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