by Jayda Pugliese, PTAC Member
At its simplest, “STEM” education is where children learn real-world lessons by applying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that connect school, community, and industry. Many teachers typically recognize their passion for STEM education prior to entering the teaching profession; however, my journey to becoming a STEM educator was different than most.
In 2009, I began my career in North Philadelphia as a middle school special education teacher. I always believed that teaching students with disabilities was my calling, because I myself have a disability. I am profoundly hearing-impaired. Throughout college, I focused on building myself into an effective special educator; practicing the art of IEP writing and reading special education law, because I absolutely “knew” that this was what I wanted to do with my life. This mindset was developed through my own struggles in school. I always felt one step behind my peers, academically and socially. As a special education teacher, I would now have the opportunity to be the change I needed when I was a child.
In 2011, my principal needed me to temporarily fill a 7th and 8th grade mathematics teacher vacancy. This position wasn’t my first choice, but I agreed to take it. I knew our school was out of options. Ten teachers had previously taken this position and resigned within a few months because of the challenges it posed.
Over the course of those four months, I struggled. Yet, I was determined to succeed giving those middle school students opportunities to see mathematics differently. In the process, I learned something about myself I hadn’t expected; I love STEM education. The experience changed me. It made me realize that I should utilize my talents where I feel most passionate. By August 2015, I decided leave special education to teach 5th grade Mathematics and Science in a public school in South Philadelphia.
Being relatively new to the STEM world, I was not entirely sure how to approach STEM instruction at first. As a special educator, I always built lessons that allowed students to make real world connections to the core content. I approached the general education setting with a similar focus. In developing projects for my students that allowed them to serve others, they began to see the curriculum as a means to connect to the world outside school. Students were able to see how school lessons could benefit their school, their community, and their world.
Service learning provides students with opportunities to apply knowledge in practical situations. They develop skills while seeing the way learning in school can be applied to help others. They see the relevance in their learning. These projects increase student self-confidence, personal responsibility, and foster valuable workplace skills and habits.
My focus on providing this type of opportunity to children has become the core of how I teach. This school year, my students partnered with the nonprofit organization, Pawsthetics, which helps provide prosthetics for animals in need. Using the 3D Printers in our classroom, the children in my classes were able to design, print, build, test and donate a usable prosthetic for a bulldog in Connecticut. Last school year, students designed and printed a prosthetic hand for a four-year-old girl who was born with a deformity. Her family otherwise would not have been able to afford this device.
My classes also explored social entrepreneurship by using 3D printers to create ornaments that were sold as fundraisers for local and international charities. In each of these cases, all of my students; even my special education students and English Language Learners, are developing the critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity skills that will be vital in their careers. Even more importantly, they are building capacity to be empathic, caring individuals.
Working with new technologies does not guarantee a successful STEM learning experience. In fact, many educators often seem to consider STEM from a perspective in which success in science and mathematics is increasingly important, and technology and engineering are only integrated when appropriate. When teachers begin to divide STEM into individuals subjects it ceases to be true “STEM” learning. Multi-disciplinary integration is key.
There is still no clear consensus among educators on the definition for STEM. However, there are several recurring competencies which are widely accepted as being developed through STEM education. Some of those include developing critical-thinking skills, generating real-world connections to content, and practical use of 21st century skills.
Building these competencies requires a shift in how we teach. Teachers need to move from the more traditional approach of direct instruction to a hands-on, constructivist approach. I have found the following classroom strategies to be helpful in fostering these skills:
Here are some ways that you can get started in using STEM and service learning to develop 21st Century skills and competencies in your students:
1.) Start Small and Plan Big. Start with your students. Have conversations with them. Learn about their passions, about the problems they see in their world from their point of view. From these conversations, try and locate something small in the community which your students can participate. Planning and communicating is key. As teachers, we are the ones that need to figure out how these projects are able to connect to instruction. Whether you are teaching measurement, simple machines, coding, or soft communication skills, there are always learning opportunities which exist when involving the community that can connect to the common core standards. Once you have identified a problem together, invite them to be change-makers. Help them realize that what they believe and what they say matters.
2.) Build Empathy. Ensure students fully understand the purpose for their project. Some key questions to ask are, “Why is this project important?” and “How is this project positively impacting others?” If our goal is to build empathy in our students and to help them see the issue from others’ points of view. Help them realize and believe in their capacity to contribute to the community.
3.) Ideate through Collaboration. Allow students opportunities to come up with lots of ideas they believe will help solve the given problem. Some will be feasible, and some will not. It is important that every student believes their voice is being heard and valued. During this period of brainstorming, have students sort through the ideas to identify which can be used to create solutions to the problem. Help them think critically about each possible solution without imposing your opinions about them. If they start to believe this is a teacher-driven project they will lose ownership over the learning.
4.) Failure is a Learning Opportunity. Not all service-learning projects are going to work the first time. When conducting these lessons, there is always a chance that failure will occur. Maybe your students are unable to construct the irrigation system they wanted to in their community garden. Maybe your students designed something on the 3D printer and it came out unusable. Maybe your students helped build a community structure, but it quickly disassembles. Failure is a normal part of the design process. It allows us to examine our ideas and to make them better. Model for children that failure is a learning opportunity. It is one of the most important skills you can give them.
5.) Involve the Community. My most successful service-learning projects have been successful because I have involved community members, experts, organizations, and charities. Be resourceful and use connections to give your students as many opportunities for success as possible. Use social media accounts like Twitter to reach out to those who may be able to help your students. You will find many willing experts and teachers who would love to discuss your service-learning lesson ideas.