Guide to a STEM PD


I was in a conversation recently with a bright and enthusiastic student teacher. We'll call him Malcolm.

Malcolm is training to be a STEM teacher, and, like most STEM teachers, he's trying to understand what makes a STEM program successful. He explained that he "really wants to make an impact in education", and that "teaching is more than a job" to him. It's the Malcolms of the world that give education its heartbeat. 

When I asked him how he planned to teach STEM, he started by listing the problems he's seen in STEM implementation: 

  1. Teachers are often not included in the conversation to build a school's STEM program. The decision is ultimately up to the school's and/or district's administrative team(s), often leaving educators voiceless and frustrated.
  2. Schools market themselves as being "STEM" schools without actually having a clear program or plan in place. By "STEM", sometimes what they really mean is, "We teach math and science! And we own (and sometimes use) technology!" 
  3. Along the same lines, schools don't always have a clear and consistent definition of what STEM actually means.
  4. Teachers aren't given the resources to actually team STEM (such as training, curricula, or even time).

We'll stop there. 

So, Malcolm asked for our thoughts on how we teach and define STEM.

As we all know, staff training is fundamental to the success of any program, especially with a new or pilot one. This being said, to teach STEM well, we like to start with Professional Development. Here are some of our guidelines on how to design a healthy STEM PD:

  1. Get everyone on the same page. Include all teachers in the initial program setup. This includes general education classroom teachers, teacher aides, and librarians. Not only is it respectful to give all teachers a say in implementing a new school-wide program, but inclusion also creates a sense of individual and team empowerment to collaboratively get the program off the ground.

    You may want to begin by asking all educators to discuss why the school's even considering teaching STEM (and, in particular, engineering and technology). (Answer: Our economy increasingly depends on engineers and advanced technology for global competitiveness.)
  2. Create a common framework. Related to the last point, construct a school-wide definition of STEM. Teaching Garage frames it as the following: 

    Engineers create technology, and technology is anything that solves a problem. Math and science are the tools that allow engineers to create these technologies. By this definition, light bulbs, mechanical pencils, and antivirus software are all various forms of technology because they have been created/engineered in order to solve a problem.

    The Engineering Design Process (Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve) is the structured 5-step iterative process that engineers use to create these technologies - using the maths and sciences.
  3. Retrain teachers in best practices. Your STEM program must include hands-on learning. Ensure everyone is up-to-speed in the essential pedagogies related to teaching hands-on learning - well - including project-based learning and the 4 C's. 
  4. Discuss the hows. What materials will students have to build with? Where will teachers gather lesson ideas? How will teachers create their own lessons? When should engineering be taught? How will classrooms differentiate instruction? What kinds of student measurements will be used to track growth?

    Teaching Garage has created an elementary engineering curriculum that relies on recyclables to build student projects. We've also found that STEM programs are most effective when engineering is taught in tandem with science units. For example, if you are teaching a unit on the solar system, Astronautical Engineering may be a great topic to teach in extension of that science. Not only does this approach reinforce the sciences, but it also demonstrates real-world applications.
  5. Don't forget the "M"! Design SySTEM integrates math into its curriculum by asking students to test their technologies using mathematical computation. For example, how many grams can your "robotic hand" pick up? Convert grams into a fraction of a kilogram.
  6. Create initial lessons together. Finally, have grade-level teams either create or simulate the first few lessons together. Not only will this teamwork give teachers an extra boost of confidence, but it will also spur ongoing collaboration in creating and sharing more engineering lessons as the year goes on.

If you're looking for a self-guided Professional Development package, check out Teaching Garage's digital PD packages. You can also sign up for a free trial of Design SySTEM here.