by NATHANIEL NELSON
In Katrina Glick’s first-grade classroom, buckets of Legos, iPads, and children litter the carpet. Zayne Allen and Jada Harvey put the finishing touches on their robot as other groups start placing digital blocks in order, creating a chain reaction as the robot scoots across the classroom floor. This year, Goodview Elementary has been incorporating STEM into its classrooms with the help of former Jefferson teachers, working toward a full district transition to STEM education.
What is STEM?
In literal terms, STEM is an abbreviation for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and is often used as a way to quickly refer to the subjects as an educational grouping, similar to liberal arts. When many people think of STEM, Goodview Principal Emily Cassellius explained, their minds attach to the second letter.
“Often times, people think STEM is about the gizmos and gadgets. They want to be able to see STEM,” she said. “But it’s really about the teaching strategies. We want our students to be problem solvers and deep thinkers in their learning.”
STEM education methods focus on several different elements, but most directly on problem solving, critical thinking and inquiry-based learning. The latter of the three is the most crucial element, and works its way into how a teacher teaches any course.
“That is when students pose questions and it’s their task to find the answers themselves,” Cassellius said. She added that to do this, teachers are trained to facilitate students’ learning instead of being direct, essentially giving students the tools to figure out a problem, but not giving them the solution up front.
That said, technology is inevitably an important aspect, so some gizmos and gadgets are inevitable.
“STEM really prepares students for the 21st-century training that is happening now,” Cassellius explained. “Technology is part of our world right now. It might not be found in all our students’ homes, so it’s our job as a district to teach that it can be a tool.”
These methods aren’t limited just to those subjects, either.
Britta Browne, a third grade teacher at Goodview, taught a course earlier this year that merged English with STEM practices.
She explained that her students were reading a story about different kinds of homes, so she had each student construct one of their own.
Each student is given a bin with different building materials –– the Legos are the most popular –– to complete these sorts of tasks. They then work on the assignment, similar to other courses, but there’s a catch.
Browne won’t tell them how to do it.
“A lot of them really want that help, but the look on their face when they finally figure it out is huge. There’s more feeling and pride in it,” Browne said.
In the past, STEM was offered as a selling point for Jefferson Elementary School, which was designated as a magnet school. Students from across the region came to Jefferson to learn through STEM, and for years, the process worked.
Earlier this year, the WAPS Board voted to close and sell Madison and Rollingstone schools, and when that happened, it was decided that the STEM program should expand.
“With the school consolidation, this was the natural time be intentional about bringing it to all three buildings,” Cassellius said. “The conversation had been that if STEM is good for some kids, it is good for all kids.”
The transition has not been without hiccups, of course –– STEM instruction concepts can’t be taught to teachers in a day, and moving a whole district in that direction takes time. When Jefferson was a STEM magnet school, every teacher in the building had been trained on STEM teaching methods. With the expansion, former Jefferson teachers were moved to the other schools to help get the rest of the elementary teachers up to speed.
“Throughout the year, we’ve made sure that professional development is focused on STEM,” she said. “We have a three-year plan where we will continue to have professional development so team members are learning different methods.”
The training is done through several different ways, Cassellius said. First, there are the more structured staff development meetings, where teachers are taught how STEM methods can be integrated into the classroom. The second is through the former Jefferson teachers, who lead smaller meetings on different aspects of the methods and help the other teachers. The third is more voluntary.
“We all see the benefit, so we seek out the opportunities ourselves,” explained Byron Gilliland.
Gilliland has been teaching STEM for seven years and, as a former staff member at Jefferson, is one of the two leaders at Goodview helping with the transition. He explained that his fellow teachers have been very responsive to the training, and can often be found researching ideas on how to engage their students well into the evening after school.
“Teachers constantly email me for ideas on what is out there,” Gilliland said.
Goodview Elementary is uniquely prepared to become a STEM school, Cassellius said, thanks to a couple of different elements that aren’t found anywhere else in the district. For one, the school has a makerspace, filled with reusable building materials, technology, and other trinkets that let students work on projects in their own way.
“It’s really a place where they can let their ideas come to life,” Cassellius said.
The school is also “open concept,” meaning there are no walls between the classrooms. Students often interact more frequently than they would in other schools, and it allows for unique collaboration between units and even grades.
“It’s built in a way that allows for that natural collaboration,” Cassellius said.
This collaboration works well to help expand the school’s various STEM offerings, but it’s only the start. Over the next three years, staff members will continue to learn and practice STEM methods, refining their technique until the schools are operating almost entirely around STEM.
However, the kind of structure at Jefferson will not be making a return.
“It’s not like all the schools are going to be like Jefferson was,” Gilliland said. “But they are all going to try to be STEM.”