Empowerment is the “E” in STEM

The acronym “STEM” has been a problem for educators for many reasons. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math led to exclusion of core content like history and literacy, and teachers in many schools placed the responsibility for developing these skills in students on a select few. 

When I served as the Director of PreK-12 STEM in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (NC), I defined STEM as Students and Teachers Energizing Minds and made STEM teaching and learning for ALL students and ALL teachers. I believe STEM skills are about problem-solving so ALL students need the chance to develop their problem-solving skills. In 11 years of traveling the country to inspire educators to implement STEM, I have encountered numerous literacy teachers, PE teachers, and band directors who are STEMtastic teachers providing their students with opportunities to develop problem-solving skills. 


 You can’t be what you can’t see!"

 -Mariam Wright Edelman

I use the phrase from Marian Wright Edelman of the Childrens’ Defense Fund “You can’t be what you can’t see!”. Creating a strategy to provide all students with opportunities to develop their problem-solving skills means creating a way for students to see themselves as problem solvers. There are a variety of ways to provide this opportunity for PreK-12 students. Educators need to provide them with experiences learning about great problem solvers from our past. To empower our students we need to share diverse examples of problem solvers that go beyond Marie Curie and Albert Einstein and include activities other than robotics and coding.

During February, while celebrating Black History month, all students need to learn about amazing black problem solvers. A great place to find these stores is https://thekidsshouldsee this.com.  5 Black inventors showcased on this site include Alexander Miles who created automatic elevator doors in 1887, Dr. Charles Richard Drew who advanced medical techniques and equipment for storing blood that led to blood banks, Marie van Brittan Brown who invented the home security system in 1969, Dr. Shirley Jackson who is the 1st African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. at MIT who studied the optical and electronic properties of layered materials, and Dr. Mark Dean who is a chief engineer and designer of the original IBM personal computer. Dr. Dean’s technology allows devices, such as keyboards, mice, and printers to be plugged into a computer and communicate with one another. ALL of us need to know the stories of these problem solvers, their experiences and the impact their problem solving has had on our world.

In March, during Women's History Month, all students need to be learning about amazing female problem solvers. Chelsea Clinton has a book series for young readers She Persisted and these include problem solvers in science, civics, and the arts. You can find information on the amazing women in books such as The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson and internet sources. Many of these women had to fight the establishment to get their ideas and inventions accepted and their communication skills and leadership were vital. Some of these women include Pearl Kendrick who created a protocol to develop vaccines that have been the acceptable path for vaccines since 1940, Eileen Collins the first woman to be the captain of the space shuttle, and Jane Goodall for discovered animals other than humans use tools. Educators need to include young inventors like Gitanjali Rao who is Time magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year and has patented 5 devices to make life better for others. 

Our students desperately need an infusion of hope in our current post-pandemic situation. We are tasked with providing SEL (social-emotional learning) and the best way to do that is to grow the capacity of our students to solve problems. When we allow them to flex their problem-solving muscles, we are empowering them to take command of their lives. The best way to do this is to empower the educators serving as their learning facilitators.

In Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools I had 13,000 teachers leading classrooms, with varying abilities. I found that teachers do the best they know how and when they know better, they do better. Providing a structure for Problem Based Learning for your teachers is the best way to grow their capacity. Defined Learning is a library of 366 PBL units PreK-12 that are aligned to state standards and provide students with the opportunity to solve a relevant, real-world problem in the context of a career. Defined Learning PBLs follow the Understanding by Design framework PreK-12 and are written with age-appropriate resources and rubrics. In CMS schools we worked hard to create our PBLs and found that creating quality rubrics was time-consuming, and giving teachers the resources they need to differentiate instruction was also difficult. Using the Defined Learning PBLs provides teachers with everything they need to be successful, including a task plan that shows them how long each piece of the process should take. A difficult piece for many educators is explaining to students how the innovation process happens. Defined Learning’s PBLs provide videos and readings as an infrastructure for students to follow. Another great resource is A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM-5 steps to problem-solving for students, educators, and parents by Gitanjali Rao. After being named “America’s Top Young Scientist” for her invention to help students measure the purity of their drinking water, other students would ask her to share how she developed her idea into an invention. Her answer was to create this book to help students and the adults attempting to assist them, so that other young people can take their ideas to fruition.

In conclusion, the National Science Foundation research indicates that the more diverse the group solving the problem, the more robust the solution. If humans are going to solve the multitude of problems we have created in our world, we need ALL students’ voices involved in providing those solutions. Let’s inspire and empower our students to use their best thinking to solve those problems.

About the Author: 

Dr. Cindy Moss is currently the VP of Innovation for Defined. Dr. Moss brings over 31 years of experience in district leadership, classroom instruction, and inquiry-based learning to her work as a champion for STEM engagement and career & workforce readiness.


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