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Five steps for effective STEM in schools

Much like the Industrial Revolution of the past, we are currently witnessing the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – characterised by increasing automation, digital transformation and the prevalence of cyber-physical systems. If we want today’s children to thrive in this brave new world, today’s education systems need to embrace more STEM. When I say STEM education, I refer not just to the teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths independently or even cohesively – I also refer to the meta-skills that teaching these subjects include – problem-solving, critical thinking, collaborative communication, agile learning management methods and much more.

The school system I grew up in was extremely linear – with a set time dedicated to one “subject” – and a complete absence of any cross-curricular or even real-world connection. While many Australian schools are gradually changing today, the fact remains that the world is changing far too rapidly. A dedicated STEM team, STEM space or any STEM initiative, really, can make a huge difference towards the student’s learning – exposing and preparing them for this Fourth industrial revolution.

Here are five steps that schools can use to effectively implement a STEM program. While even one or two steps can make a difference, all five steps combined can drive the school into the next era of education.

Invest in the right resources:

STEM education resources are proliferating. Investing in high-quality STEM tools like coding robots, 3d printing, Lego technique, Kid K’nex etc. can make a massive difference to the children’s learning experience. However, STEM resources are not just about the most expensive latest education gadget. Simple open-ended construction material like wooden blocks, sticks, cubes, straws, polystyrene balls and a hot glue gun can provide children with the opportunity to engineer solutions to different problems. The key is to have quality resources, duly organised so that teachers can access them regularly to use in their classrooms.

Invest in staff education:

Any new STEM tool requires a learning curve for the teacher to implement it effectively. Adding this to the average teacher’s already high workload often results in resources gathering dust in the storage room. STEM tools are more than using the resource manual or giving children 30 minutes at lunch-time for self-exploration. They can be used in cross-curricular exploration – E.g. Bloxels can be used to learn history through video games. At Young Engineers we use Lego technique to explore physics in depth. A STEM program is most effective when teachers start using STEM tools in the classroom as naturally as they use the marker or white-board.

Don’t be afraid to FAIL:

The STEM landscape can change if the school management gives their teachers the freedom to try new ideas without worrying about repercussions. Whether it is trying out a new resource, a new teaching strategy or a new project, teachers can embrace innovation only in a pressure-free environment. When they model this attitude, it passes on to the children who also welcome out-of-the-box thinking. After all, a FAIL is only the First Attempt In Learning

Trust the learner:

In STEM pedagogy, student centred education goes beyond lesson planning with the students’ interest or ability in mind. Effective STEM sessions allow students to take charge of their learning and drive the discussion forward. Teachers often play the role of mentors or co-learners, facilitating the exchange of ideas and giving children tools, not solutions. For example, Lumineer Academy presents real-world problems for children to brainstorm and build their solution. Their students of Year 3 – Year 5 recently designed clean water infrastructure for the Kiriwina community of Papua New Guinea.

At Young Engineers, we use a scaffolding method – for the first half of the session we do directed learning where children follow set instructions to build a basic machine. During the second half children innovate and enhance their designs while solving different engineering problems. There is no right or wrong answer – and you never know what this part of the session will look like. This kind of lesson planning requires significant student trust on the part of the teacher.

Involve the community:

With an increasingly connected world, nothing happens in isolation and neither should learning within schools. Reaching out to industry partners and external providers can bring new insights and ideas to student learning. For example, Peninsula Grammar school partnered with NAB innovation lab – students designed and built an app that is being tested for release in the market.

Similarly, many high-quality STEM education providers in the market can bring in resources that the school doesn’t have or bring in new ideas to use existing resources. We have the time and resources to research-intensive STEM lesson plans and ideas which the school perhaps doesn’t. For example, in Young Engineers school incursions we work with the classroom teacher to build models that fit into the current classroom learning. We once built a Metronome in a year one classroom where the children were already learning about sound. The children learned so much about acoustics, types of motion and other engineering principles in that one session.

The Fourth Industrial revolution is already here. Is your school ready to make the leap?

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