Teaching STEM: The Dilemma

By Anne Jolly

I remember a haunting conversation with a 7th-grade science teacher – I’ll call her Sara. Actually, I guess Sara was the one who was haunted – haunted by the possibilities of what STEM could mean in her classroom if she could just pull it off.

Her frustration was palpable. She knew what she needed to do. She believed deeply that it would bring learning alive for her students. She intensely wanted to do it, but she was floundering.

Sara had attended a national science conference and joined the STEM sessions. Excited and inspired, she pictured turning her classroom into a STEM center. Science lessons would turn into real-world challenges involving math, engineering, and technology. However, facing the predictable realities of the school day, Sara now felt that she was dragging a weight as she worked to design a STEM lesson.

Across the hall and several doors down sat an equally frustrated math teacher. Each year Maya’s students seemed to lose interest as math became more difficult and abstract. “And what use is this anyway?” they would ask her. “Why should we learn it?”

Maya wanted a real-world application that would help them engage more fully with the math and understand the vital role of math in solving real problems. She, too, was interested in a STEM approach.

Reasons for the dilemma
Both of these teachers are moving toward the same goal – alone – and feeling increasingly overwhelmed. Can you guess what roadblocks Sara, Maya, and other teachers might face as they try to implement STEM curriculum? These statements may sound familiar.

  • “My school system has an obsessive focus on student testing, and that’s what they want me to teach toward – test objectives, test objectives, test objectives.”
  • “Our course of study has so many different objectives to teach that I don’t have the time to go deeply into any of them – at least, not in the way that STEM’s project-based learning approach calls for.”
  • “I have little control over what I teach or when I teach it. I must stay with a fast-moving pacing guide. I even have to teach flowering plants in January!”
  • “I need more time to plan STEM lessons, immerse my kids in the content, and help them find solutions for problems. And I don’t have materials and equipment needed for STEM hands-on projects.”

I could go on, but if you are a teacher, you probably know any other reasons I might mention. If you’re not, these four comments will give some sense of the problem. So I’d like to focus on the biggest barrier I think teachers face:

Most teachers are not adequately prepared and equipped to teach STEM.

As a science teacher, I would probably have the science knowledge required to guide students as they navigate through STEM challenges. But my command of the engineering design process, mathematics, and technology would certainly need an upgrade. I’d have to come up with a real-world challenge and know how to put together STEM lessons. Think about the math teacher who needs to know how to integrate science, the engineering design process, and a hands-on approach into her lessons. That’s daunting.

Some STEM solutions
I think it’s only fair that we help teachers strengthen and develop the expertise they need to teach STEM. My idea of the perfect professional preparation and development opportunities would begin with a Class A teacher preparation program. (Perhaps we can create that teacher prep program in a later post. Send me your ideas.)

Then classroom teachers would need time and the opportunity to continue learning through ongoing professional development. Let’s look at some possibilities:

  • Engineering experiences for teachers. These might be summer programs that allow middle-school teachers from STEM fields to work with engineers and scientists. Are there industries in your area that might provide those opportunities?
  • Summer STEM camps and workshops for teachers. These should use a problem-solving approach and provide teachers with tools to integrate STEM applications into their lessons.
  • Higher education partnerships. Nearby colleges might provide subject area updates to keep K-12 teachers of math and science on the STEM cutting edge.
  • Ongoing in-school collaboration among science and math teachers. Support is urgently needed so that teachers in these core STEM subjects can continue learning in their content areas, work together to develop and coordinate STEM lessons, assess the impact on students, and hold each other accountable for incorporating STEM into their lessons.

Just between us, that last bullet is the blue ribbon winner in the “solutions” category. Why not start a professional learning team to focus specifically on learning and teaching STEM? Without regular, supportive collaboration, intended changes in classroom teaching often don’t stick. Imagine that all teachers of math and science in your school are on board with teaching STEM and are continually working together to improve their teaching in this area. Imagine that school and system leaders have the courage to step off the test prep train and support a project-based learning (PBL) approach to instruction. Would all this make a difference for your students?

Despite pressures and roadblocks, well-prepared teachers who have opportunities for continual learning can succeed at developing successful STEM classroom initiatives.

STEM resources at your fingertips

I’d be remiss to leave you thinking that you must always develop your own STEM lessons. Actually, you can build quite an extensive toolkit of resources from a number of reputable Internet sites. Here are a few you might consider:

  • eGFI Dream Up the Future introduces a number of STEM education lesson plans and activities that you can browse by grade level. You can also find links to other amazing sites that offer STEM lessons.
  • Design Squad Global for Parents and Educators focuses on guiding students of various ages to experience engineering through the design process. You can browse teacher guides, parent guides, videos, and games.
  • Defined STEM provides an online library of real-world performance tasks that are based on situations in STEM careers and ask students to apply what they are learning in the classroom to solve real-world problems. Each task comes with an engaging video, step-by-step guides for teachers and students, editable standards-aligned content and rubrics.
  • The Teach Engineering digital library provides a database of teacher-tested, standards-based engineering content for K-12 teachers to use in STEM classrooms. Engineering lessons are mapped to educational content standards. In addition, suggested materials are usually inexpensive.

Finally, check out How to Make or Find Good STEM Lessons. It has guidelines for designing your own STEM lessons plus six current STEM challenges that are real “grabbers” for kids. You’ll additional help and lesson ideas at my book website, STEM by Design.


About the Author:
Anne Jolly
 is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.


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