By: Jennifer Schmerling and Dr. Alexis Soffler, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School How Do You Evaluate the STEM Program at Your Child’s Elementary School? The momentum of STEM education and initiatives has increased rapidly due to the growing awareness of its significance to our society. But what is STEM and STEM education, and why is it vital for the future of our children? The acronym STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and STEM education refers to exposing students to these integrated fields and their everyday applications. STEM education in the elementary years cultivates a love of inquiry, innovation, and research, while developing perseverance - a key ingredient for success in studies and in life. When students take part in STEM projects and learning, they are gaining valuable technological and engineering design skills as well as planting a “seed of interest” to pursue future STEM careers. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA), between 2001 and 2011 growth in STEM jobs has been three times greater than growth in non-STEM jobs. Additional statistics support the finding that STEM employees earn 26% more than their non-STEM peers. Unfortunately, our country is experiencing a deficit in the number of professional engineers and technologists available to solve problems and enter the STEM workforce. The promotion of STEM topics in our elementary schools can and will help solve that problem. When evaluating your child’s elementary school’s STEM program, think about the top five components of our comprehensive STEM program and whether or not your child’s school offers them. 1. iLab The “i” stands for innovation. The iLab is an inspiring place for students K-6 to engage in science, technology, engineering, and math. An iLab houses exciting learning tools on the forefront of STEM education such as computers for coding, interactive Smart Boards, 3-D printers, Lego Robotics, digital microscopes, and so much more. In the iLab, students may be engaged in anything from “tinkering” to full lessons. It is a space for open-ended learning and for students to come with ideas and passions and find people and tools to see them through their own problem-solving. 2. Access to technology We live in a technology-driven world and we must acquaint our children with the proper use of technology at an early age. Technology is also a proven tool to help children acquire basic skills and assist in higher-level thinking and problem-solving. With a 1:1 program, computer labs, and mobile laptop carts, students are equipped with 21st century tools and resources to demonstrate their intellectual strengths and support their individual learning needs. Other educational technology opens doors to diverse learning. SMART boards can make group work interesting and reduce the need for fine motor skills to solve problems. 3D printers can make ideas come to life. Technology in schools is not only about quantity, it’s about quality and diversity. 3. STEM specialist The STEM specialist leads the introduction and integration of STEM into the school’s classrooms and curriculum. He/she has robust knowledge in STEM education and frequently attends selected training to enhance the STEM knowledge and skills of his or her associated school. Excellent STEM specialists will often have graduate degrees in science, math, or STEM education and experience in the classroom, as well as with administration and professional development. They are partners with the school community in developing and co-teaching lessons, bringing into the school and supporting new projects, providing professional development and consultation, and advocating for evidence-based and appropriate STEM integration into the school environment. 4. Don’t forget the “T” and “E” STEM programs often include offerings in science and math, but don’t forget the “T” (technology) and “E” (engineering). One exciting technology connection making news is coding (computer programming). The opportunity to learn how to program computers through coding not only introduces creative use of math content, but helps students to think through process, logic, variables, problem-solving, and understanding patterns. Great STEM programs on the cutting edge of educational research are adopting more digitally game-based learning (such as Minecraft) to teach in collaborative, virtual environments. Engineering is also vital to a STEM program. Engineering is the process of creating something to solve a problem. It requires students to combine their content knowledge and their own ideas into something tangible to solve or fix something that is authentic and relevant to them. Regular engineering opportunities - in everything from “tinkering” to full curricula - enhance children’s understandings of the world and their personal potential for being a “maker”. 5. Whole school challenges A whole-school STEM Challenge provides students and teachers a break from their routines to participate in an exciting day of inquiry, exploration, and experimentation. Whole-school STEM Challenges provide students in each grade with developmentally appropriate challenges and hands-on activities. During STEM Challenges, students cheer on peers in their community and learn from their first attempts and teacher feedback. It also allows students to find that they have talents not always honored in a traditional classroom experience. Whole-school Challenges unite all students in common goals where everyone wins.
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