Working with a number of school systems around the country, I have witnessed a number of commonalities that lead to successful STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning experiences and initiatives. These initiatives often go by a number of names including STEM, STEAM, Maker Space, Project-Based Learning (PBL), Hands-On Learning, etc.
Regardless of the name, these initiatives have a better chance of success when these five strategies are utilized:
- Collaborative Vision: It is very important that school stakeholders help to frame and develop the vision for this change to the program. The more groups represented, the more support the teaching and learning process will have. Often a leader will decide what they want the program to look like and what they expect from those involved. This may work in the short term, but if initial “buy-in” can be created through a shared vision, the chance for systemic change and long-term success is greater.
- Supportive Climate and Environment: Once a vision has been established it is important for school leaders, teachers and staff to work together to create a school environment that supports the initiative. These supports may include flexible scheduling of rooms, teachers, and classes. It will be important to decide how the initiative will unfold during the school day and as part of the school and student schedule. Some of these variables may include technology, materials, research resources and how these interact with the student, teacher, and school schedule.
- Professional Learning: For a program to succeed, educators must become comfortable utilizing new teaching strategies. This does not mean that traditional practices should be dismissed but rather alternative strategies should also be implemented. As part of a program introduction, structured professional learning that includes a combination of content, pedagogy, and active learning is essential. It’s important for school leaders and teachers to understand what success looks like and potential barriers from leaders who have been through this process. This may mean bringing in an instructional expert or facilitating training. As teachers are provided ownership of the initiative and the process evolves, it’s important they are able to determine their learning paths. This could include visiting other school sites, having experiences with other programs, and meeting like-minded professionals.
- Classroom Structure and Support: As the initiative planning process continues it will be necessary to consider the physical attributes of the classroom and/or classrooms to be utilized. These ideas may evolve as educators dig deeper and consider the learning spaces that can excite and engage the students. Research is often an important part of the process and space will be needed. An area will be needed for teacher/student collaboration and for students to work together. This is often determined based upon the collaborative vision, school climate, and the results of professional learning experiences.
- Champions: As school leaders understand, the individuals chosen to lead an initiative are the ones who determine success or failure. Champions look different, but it is critical for the leader to choose the champions wisely. They must have the drive and vision to help the initiative succeed. Leaders must be willing to work with these people collaboratively and understand that they are part of the decision-making process. Champions will need to help spread the initiative across the school and system through words and deeds. Choose wisely.
This is not a step-by-step recipe for success, but through observation and interaction, I have identified these strategies as commonalities that have contributed to successful STEM initiatives.
Dr. David L. Reese serves as Chief Academic Officer for Defined Learning. During the past twenty years, Dr. Reese has served K-12 students as a science teacher, Curriculum Specialist, and Central Office Administrator. He has taught Masters and Doctoral courses in all areas of curriculum and professional development leadership. His work focuses on providing students with engaging, relevant learning opportunities designed to encourage students to apply content from a local, national and international perspective.