STEM teaching: The key to the future can be a challenge for teachers

It’s hard to have any conversation about education today in which STEM teaching doesn’t come up. The acronym, used to refer to “science, technology, engineering, math,” pops up on education blogs, websites, teacher newsletters and career boards everywhere.

Visionaries see bold, flexible and innovative classrooms in which students of all ages learn higher and higher levels of STEM curriculum, bringing them success later in life and ensuring a legacy of a re-emerging, competitive U.S. workforce. “A strong STEM education is becoming increasingly recognized as a key driver of opportunity, and data show the need for STEM knowledge and skills will grow and continue into the future,” says “STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education,” a report done by the U.S. Department of Education and the American Institutes for Research.

The report emphasized six areas of focus:

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  • Networked “communities of practice”
  • Learning activities that encourage play and risk
  • Classroom activities that invite innovative approaches to challenges
  • Learning spaces that are inclusive and flexible
  • Innovative ways to measure degrees of learning
  • Environments that are diverse and that encourage and promote STEM opportunities

However, even as it listed these priorities, the report considered the challenges that implementing such changes would bring. Chief among them? “The contributors to this project grappled with the issue of how the vision could be equitably implemented across the diversity of communities that exist in the United States.” In other words, no matter how lofty the goals, the execution still came down to objective needs: money, infrastructure, leadership support and, the biggest factor: solving a shortage of STEM teachers across the nation.

The report was in 2015, four years after President Barack Obama challenged the nation in his 2011 State of the Union address to add 100,000 high-quality STEM teachers nationwide in 10 years. A national network called 100Kin10 was created with that goal in mind, and since then the original 28 founding partners have expanded to include 280 members, including experts, leaders, universities, nonprofits, government agencies and private companies. Their challenge: solve the problems of STEM education.

In 2017, the organization released its list of “Grand Challenges,” an interactive map that identifies the 100 most pressing problems. They grouped the problems into seven major themes:

  • Prestige: Teaching is still not seen as a prestigious career destination for top STEM graduates;
  • Teacher leadership: Teachers often do not have the autonomy or flexibility to innovate;
  • Professional growth: There is a shortage of opportunities for professional teacher growth;
  • Elementary STEM: Elementary students and teachers are typically not a part of STEM learning;
  • Preparation: Teachers can struggle in very diverse classrooms, which may include multiple cultures, students who have disabilities, and students for whom English is a second language;
  • Instructional materials: There often is a lack of dedicated school district funds to STEM instructional materials;
  • Value of science, technology and engineering (S, T &E): Traditional school curriculum still puts a higher value on reading, math, language arts and social studies than on S, T & E.

In addition, there’s a problem on the classroom side of the teacher’s desk: Many students simply aren’t interested.

“Nearly 90 percent of high school graduates say they’re not interested in a career or a college major involving science, technology, engineering or math, known collectively as STEM, according to a survey of more than a million students who take the ACT test,” said a 2013 opinion piece in the New York Times. “One of the biggest reasons for that lack of interest is that students have been turned off to the subjects as they move from kindergarten to high school. Many are being taught by teachers who have no particular expertise in the subjects. They are following outdated curriculums and textbooks. They become convinced they’re ‘no good at math,’ that math and science are only for nerds, and fall behind.”

So, what’s a teacher to do? A dedicated, passionate teacher who truly wants to inspire students, encourage curiosity, and teach STEM subjects in ways that break the mold?

You learn from others who feel that way, too. And in doing so, you shore up your own weaknesses in these topics.

“The most effective teachers have broad knowledge of their subjects,” says the Times article. “Too many lack that preparation. More than half of the 6.7 million students studying physical sciences — chemistry, physics and earth science — are learning from teachers who did not major in those subjects. Only 64 percent of those teachers are certified. The number is better for math teachers, as 78 percent are certified, but that still leaves three million math students being taught by uncertified teachers.”

Dominican University of California’s online courses for teachers can be key to career learning and development. Expand Your Knowledge of Common Core Math Standards allows you to study a domain within your grade-level standards; the Next Generation Science Standards series of classes includes a class with STEM emphasis; and Creating and Maintaining the Technology-Infused Classroom helps a teacher weave technology into all aspects of the classroom. Dozens of courses allow you to add needed education credits while bolstering your classroom skills, whether you need to refresh yourself on the theory of relativity or learn to code.

“These young scientists and engineers teach us something beyond the specific topics that they’re exploring,” said President Obama at the 2015 White House Science Fair. “They teach us how to question assumptions; to wonder why something is the way it is, and how we can make it better. And they remind us that there’s always something more to learn, and to try, and to discover, and to imagine – and that it’s never too early, or too late to create or discover something new.”

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