There was a time when RaChandra Decatur would have taught her students how to measure distances by giving them formulas rather than encouraging them to figure it out for themselves.
Things are much different now. For example, she might hand them a map and tell them to find the distance from Akron City Hall to the school. Then, as they work in groups to discover how right triangles and the Pythagorean theorem can help them determine the distance, she monitors their progress, offering advice here and there.
“Sometimes you have to give them some suggestions. Sometimes you don’t,” says Decatur, a math learning coach at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School … Center for STEM Learning (NIHF–STEM), a science, technology, engineering and mathematics middle school in Akron, Ohio.
“The material sticks more, because they actually investigated it themselves,” she continues. “It’s a very positive experience.”
It’s also a new experience — and not just for the students. After 10 years teaching at a traditional school, Decatur had to learn how to guide students toward new discoveries using the STEM curriculum at NIHF–STEM rather than just give them information.
“I felt like I was at a point where I needed to step up to another level,” she says.
A critical component of growing into this new teaching role has been the support and collaboration of the Akron school’s teachers and staff, Decatur says. The entire faculty gathers together every other week from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. to discuss teaching and learning. It’s a professional-development school, so students from the University of Akron cover classes while the teachers meet.
Teams from each grade also meet every day for about an hour and a half to plan problem-based learning units. “It takes a lot of collaboration and a lot of time,” Decatur says. But, she adds, “It’s very powerful, because you have an opportunity to meet with your team, to discuss what you’re doing, what they’re doing. And then we can piggyback off one another.”
That kind of collaboration is necessary for a STEM curriculum, says Judson Wagner, STEM program manager at Brandywine School District in Claymont, Del., and co-chairman of the state’s STEM Council. There are skills in all areas — math, science, English, music — that are critical to STEM, so Wagner has spent a lot of time encouraging teachers to break down their work silos.
Professional learning communities, which bring together teachers within departments to collaborate, are starting to gain traction in the Brandywine district, but Wagner is working on making them more interdisciplinary. “We’re moving in the right direction,” he says. “We just need to pace ourselves.”
This spring, voters approved a tax-increase referendum that will provide additional funding so that Brandywine schools will be able to continue and build upon the STEM program. Part of that money will pay for STEM liaisons (two in each of the high schools), who will help further the work of the district’s professional learning communities and champion the STEM cause, Wagner says.
According to Wagner, “Professional development has a lot to do with this.”
Michele Bowers, deputy superintendent for the Lancaster (Calif.) School District, concurs, noting that a professional development focus in STEM programs not only gives teachers new skills but also energizes them.
“They’re engaged and enthusiastic about learning, and their students feed off of that enthusiasm,” she says. “It’s a lot of work. But never once have they complained.” If anything, teachers are eager to take part in Lancaster’s STEM program.
“Is there a demand? Absolutely. Are people stepping up? Every day.”
Learn how school districts create long-term funding strategies for their STEM programs at edtechmag.com/k12/STEMfunding0312.