Keri Randolph, director of learning for the Southeast Tennessee STEM Innovation Hub, led the Rotarians in an exercise to compare new learning styles with those most of the audience experienced in school.
“STEM (the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math) is about engaging kids in the learning process and getting them doing things hands-on,” Southeast Tennessee STEM Innovation Hub managing director Tracey Carisch said. “It’s also about a different way of learning, so that kids are learning how to think and learning how to problem solve and learning how to work with their fellow classmates on projects.”
This focus connects the classroom with real-life scenarios, giving the student a better sense of how they might use this information in the future. Carisch said they have also emphasized partnerships with local businesses to give students an opportunity to see science and math in action.
“What we want to see is kids engaged and teachers as facilitators,” Randolph said.
She pointed out that the new approach gets students engaged and allows them to talk in class. Carisch said this gives the students a sense of ownership.
Having a STEM focus goes beyond adding more classes to a class schedule. According to Carisch, such a focus is about incorporating these subjects into other areas of studies and connecting them.
The STEM Innovation Hub provides continuing training for teachers in how to incorporate a STEM focus into the classroom and embrace new teaching methods.
“If you look back at the ’60s, we (United States) were at our scientific boom. That was when every kid wanted to be an astronaut. We had engineers and technologists coming into the field, more and more every year,” Carisch said. “Then it started to plateau. Then we started to notice that the number that we needed ... we needed more people who had these science, technology, engineering and math skills but not as many people seemed interested.”
There are many theories as why there was a decline in interest, according to Carisch. Some people think that because such a focus was put on making students better readers, science and math suffered.
“We sacrificed math and science at the youngest grade levels,” Carisch said.
The National Science Foundation began looking into the problem of a decline in engineers and scientists at 2001. They concluded that students needed to see the subject matter in action in order to be excited about it. Now, STEM programs have been developed for preschool through high school. A major component is critical thinking.
As teachers are striving to create innovative learning atmospheres, they are also creating new teaching planning strategies. Carisch said as a STEM focus encourages group work among students, teachers are also sharing ideas and strategies to better reach students with the information they need.
“We don’t want schools to be standing alone teaching kids and for business to be over here waiting for them to get out,” Carisch said.
In Hamilton County a STEM High School has been established on the campus of Chattanooga State Community college. Here, instead of the teacher giving the students information, students have read (or watched video containing) most of the information. The classroom is then a way for them to use the information in a project.