Over 50 years ago, the United States faced one of its greatest challenges. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik (1957) and celebrated Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s orbit around the earth (1961). President John F. Kennedy was not happy with this development and urged Congress to fund a more robust space program, challenging NASA to land a man on the moon before the close of the decade. Our country rose to the challenge, gathering its best and brightest researchers, engineers, businessmen and entrepreneurs.
History tells us that President Kennedy’s goal was met and exceeded. Time passed and the excitement of the space race faded into the background. Over the years, less emphasis was placed on math and science in our schools and America found its students lagging behind the rest of the world in these academic areas.
In November 2009, President Obama called for an “all hands on deck” to once again place science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as our top priority over the next decade.
Our school had been a community magnet school for several years, but four years ago was issued the challenge of becoming a STEM school. One of the most difficult pieces of organizing a STEM school is getting started and finding the necessary resources to launch your program. Training personnel AND finding the right personnel takes an enormous amount of time.
A true STEM school is NOT a prepackaged kit of materials. It begins with a challenge — an essential question. What do we expect our students to be able to do as they work through the challenge? Students must be taught the Engineering Design Process of “ask, imagine, plan, create and improve.” They must be able to use inquiry skills and work collaboratively with their team, capitalizing on each group member’s skills.
It is these challenges that push students into the “rigor and relevance” of their subject. It is now the added Common Core piece that encourages students to take that rigor and relevance and dig deeper. It is also an area of uncertainty for many students.
Our first year of STEM, students had difficulty getting started. They would look to their teachers for guidance saying, “I don’t understand. Tell me what you want me to do.”
It took several challenges before they began to feel confident and willing to take chances to try their own ideas. An unexpected event also began to unfold. Students who had behavior problems tended to become more interested and engaged in the group and oftentimes made significant contributions to the final product. Special education students were also noted to take a more active role in the collaboration process. They may have had difficulty reading information, but they were able to sketch and design for the rest of the group.
The biggest obstacle to overcome was fear of “failure.” Ainissa Ramirez, “Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists,” (2013) calls this the “F” word. Once students overcome their fear of “not getting the right answer,” they are willing to try any new challenge. Remember, Thomas Edison tried 9,999 ways to invent light bulb filament. STEM scientists do not consider that failure. Think of all the data Edison amassed before discovering a way to make it work!
So let us not lose sight of the possibilities of what discoveries are waiting to be unmasked as we move into the next decade. History WILL repeat itself, but let’s remember where we have been and continue to more forward.
(Editor’s Note: This guest “Viewpoint” has been written and submitted to the Cleveland Daily Banner by Cathy Kolb, president of the board of directors of Professional Educators of Tennessee. PET serves educators across the state of Tennessee and is headquartered in Franklin. Kolb is a special education teacher at Moore Magnet Elementary School in Clarksville-Montgomery County. Moore was the first elementary school to become a STEM school with full implementation in all grades K-5. This article first appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of TREND, the official publication of Professional Educators of Tennessee. Permission to reprint has been granted by the author and association.)