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Teaching STEM In Any Discipline

Jan 16, 2020

If it weren't for a biologist named Judith Ramaley, you might be reading an article about teaching SMET.

In 2001, according to Education Week, the National Science Foundation was developing curricula that enhanced education in four disciplines: science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, which the foundation shortened to SMET. Ramaley, who was a director at the foundation, didn't think SMET had much of a ring to it. She swapped the order around and came up with STEM, a much more pleasing-sounding alternative.

With that change, an important educational movement had a name.

What is STEM?

Nearly two decades later, some misconceptions still surround what STEM means and what it doesn't. Some believe it's too limited in scope to the traditional school subjects that compose its acronym. Some think that STEM education doesn't entail much more than teaching multiplication tables. But teaching STEM isn't solely about the instructional integration of STEM's science, tech, engineering, and math. It's also about applying STEM teaching approaches in other disciplines.

Further Reading: EBook: What is STEM teaching, and is it right for you?

A STEM approach to teaching prioritizes two things: actively engaging students in their own problem-solving and hands-on learning, and encouraging students to apply that experiential learning to real-world issues. It's a method of inviting students to take ownership of their education. And because it's a goal-oriented approach, it can be applied to any classroom.

Teaching STEM in social studies.

Social studies gets a bad rap as a subject filled with stuffy history lectures. But it doesn't have to be that way. Lectures are one way to learn, but students tend to learn more deeply when teachers consider a variety of learning modalities in their lessons and immerse students in the content.

Social studies is a great subject to have students grapple with real-world challenges such as climate change, technology's role in our society, and community health issues. A STEM teaching approach exposes students to these issues in ways that go beyond textbooks and multiple-choice quizzes. It requires students to investigate their topic through rigorous research, analysis, and evidence-based, hands-on problem-solving.

For a unit on the Industrial Revolution, for example, teachers who take the STEM approach could have students recreate 18th-century engineering feats or study the links between their community's present-day pollution problems to that era's unprecedented technological advancements. Susan Griffin, executive director of the National Council for Social Studies, suggests in EdCircuit that the issue of fracking—extracting oil by injecting pressurized liquid into deep-rock formations—is a prime opportunity for applying STEM approaches in the social studies classroom because it's a political, social, and environmental debate. Students won't understand the issue and the environmental ramifications on the nearby community if they don't understand the technology and engineering methods behind fracking.

Teaching STEM in English.

Research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America supports the notion that students learn more when they're actively engaged in the learning process. Active learning techniques could be applied in small- or large-group discussions, during independent learning time, or as part of experiential or project-based learning. With experiential learning, teachers develop programs that give students direct and hands-on experience as a way to increase their knowledge and develop new skills.

Ashley Bible, author of the blog Building Book Love, advocates applying STEM techniques in English classrooms, and she's used several in hers. She assigned one project in which students practiced technical writing by creating survival-themed books. While reading Lord of the Flies, Bible had students research and design a shelter for certain characters using materials from nature, then write a step-by-step technical guide for how to build it. In a twist, she had different groups of students try to follow other groups' directions. The students quickly realized what it took to think about and write effective instructions.

While assignments such as these might seem tangential to the literature, they engage students in the book, teach them to think logically, and help them learn new writing strategies.

Teaching STEM in the arts.

Arts are critical to learning and development. Arts-based activities can enhance creativity and problem-solving and analytical skills. Arts education has embraced STEM teaching approaches with such vigor that advocates have developed a spin-off: STEAM.

Some schools have embedded STEAM into every aspect of their learning design. At the Theater Arts Production Company School in the Bronx, for example, students choose one of four courses of study: dance, visual arts and technology, theater, or still to the moving image. Each track uses a STEAM approach: the dance program includes classes on composition technology, theater students learn about lighting design, and visual arts students are taught digital design media and tools. Programs such as these encourage students to immerse themselves in their art and learn the technical aspects of the arts, giving them a well-rounded education.

STEM isn't just another trendy educational buzzword. Effective, high-quality STEM education is critical to the country's economic growth and prosperity. Students today and tomorrow need STEM skills to fill high-paying jobs and drive innovation. For that to happen, schools need to be equipped with teachers who are trained to bring the STEM teaching approaches to every part of a student's education.

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