7 Signs Your Child’s School is STEM Excited
As a former teacher and science museum educator I know that the secret to exciting school-based STEM learning is a mix of resources, good teachers, and an administration open to trying new things. Internally, this can be quite evident but from a parent’s perspective the question remains, “how do I know if my child’s school is STEM ready?” Below are seven indicators to look on a school visit, ask other parents, teachers, and alumni and research via social media, local newspapers, and school publications.
When you visit your child’s school, take a look at the walls. Teachers often display student work and hallways typically serve as a “what we’re working on” showcase which can range from the mundane, hand-print turkeys to the creative and even academic. A school that has embraced STEM learning should have walls that visually reflect creative thinking. Look for student work that demonstrate the design process: projects that tackle a stated problem or question, followed by idea iteration. Look for evidence of self-reflection such as, “what I’d do differently next time?”. Look for experimentation with materials and creative use of recycled “junk,” all evidence of the design and redesign process so integral to STEM. Look for projects that demonstrate collaborative group work, another hallmark of STEM learning and finally, projects that show a range of individuality. Good STEM learning also cross disciplines so projects that translate science or math into something literary or artistic are another good indicator.
Classrooms and Facilities
Find out if the school has dedicated spaces for STEM. Is there is a science classroom, computer lab, wood shop, or the increasingly popular maker space? School budgets are tight across the country and with an increasing focus on teaching to the math and literacy tests, science learning is often forced to take a back seat. A school that is committed to the staffing and infrastructure needed to teach science and technology are obvious signs that a school is serious about STEM learning. One thing to note is that computers have long been used as an easily quantifiable benchmark for schools, often with limited correlation to increased student learning. In short computers, smartboards, 3D printers, tablets, and other trending tech are only as good as the teachers utilizing them.
This brings us to the teacher themselves. When it comes to staff, obvious indicators of a STEM school are the presence of full-time science, technology, art, and media teachers. But, dig a little deeper and look for a mix of traditional and non-traditional backgrounds. Staff who came from the business, tech, or art world often bring a creative take on STEM learning beyond the traditional of reading, writing, and math. A school with a diverse staff, in background and training, can serve STEM learning well.
Don’t overlook the arts! The creative “right side of the brain” was once considered separate from the analytical and scientific “left side” of the brain. Today educators include creativity and arts as an integral part of STEM learning, and “Art” is often added to STEM to form STEAM. A good art program teaches kids how to experiment with materials, visualize ideas, and develop a creative approach to problem-solving. Find out how often arts are taught and if the art teachers work with other teachers to achieve arts integration. In math, this may be tessellations, in science different ways of visualizing big concepts such as astronomy, Earth’s geology, timescales, or ecology.
A classic part of most every school, fields trips are usually selected by the grade heads or administrators. For all but the deeply rural schools, options for field trips are numerous. How does your school prioritize? As an informal educator, I know the power of bringing students to a museum, farm, outdoor education center, or aquarium. The excitement and learning that occurs on a field trip are obvious, and as fun as a roller coaster and splash park are, a school that exposes students to a science museum, live animals, or a planetarium is far more enriching and shows a commitment to getting kids connected to STEM learning through hands-on science.
Investigate the vacation week and summer break programs. Schools with robotic clubs, trips to colleges, professional mentorships, environmental clubs, and computer programming can increase STEM learning during school breaks and reverse the infamous “summer slide.”
Find out if your school partners with area businesses, colleges, museums, or non-profits. As a former museum-school coordinator, I know that the funding and resources exist to bring enrichment into the schools. What is sometimes lacking is a school administration willing to take the time and energy to bring in enrichment partners. Find out if the school connects with area partners and if so what are the kind of programs offered to students. STEM career pathway programs with colleges, lab visits, computer coding, or women in science are all examples of STEM partnerships you might find at a school.