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Embracing Change in the STEM Classroom
By John Freeman Posted:September 7, 2014 0 Comments
As summer winds to a close, schools across the country are starting their academic years. Students are entering new classrooms and meeting new teachers and peers. Teachers are embracing new classes and, in many cases, new curriculum. Administrators embrace new goals and initiatives that seek to put their schools and their students on better footing. After all, a new year is not just the start of the next year in a student's journey. It is often a time when a school begins to implement new ideas about education. In recent years, many of these ideas have had to do with how best to implement STEM education to ensure student success in these fields.

The problem is easy to identify. Many businesses report that they cannot find skilled STEM workers to fill empty positions. Analysts predict this shortfall will continue to grow, and it may cause a massive shortage due to the lower than needed number of STEM college graduates. But, for all of the ease in identifying the problem, coming up with a solution can be tricky. Some schools are increasing the focus on STEM inside the classroom. Others are training teachers in STEM subjects to increase their subject mastery. Others are creating specific STEM tracks or STEM schools that focus on identifying student interest early and keeping them in the STEM pipeline. But none of these solutions has proven to be a silver bullet. And that can be frustrating.

STEM education, for all its importance, is still a relative newcomer to the education reform world. Many people now study the best way to expose students to these subjects, but studying education is hard. Randomized trials can be hard to come by. Extensive longitudinal research takes years to complete. Many parents are unwilling to let their students be "guinea pigs" in a classroom laboratory. While all of these shortcomings are understandable, it impedes the progress of identifying STEM education best practices. But none of these may be as big a hindrance to STEM success as this: too many people expect educational change to happen in an instant.

When administrators lay out new goals or a school launches a new initiative, many parents believe that the school will immediately be able to achieve everything it has set out to do with no missteps or trial period. Most educators know that this is simply not true. Any change, especially large changes that affect the very nature of what goes on inside the classroom (like a new emphasis on STEM learning), will take time to fully implement. Not every teacher will bring the same skills to these new challenges. Not every student will react to new STEM learning initiatives in the same way. During this period of newness, an environment of experimentation has to pervade. Teachers and schools must be given the opportunity to experiment and to adapt their programs and policies to give themselves the maximum opportunity for success. While new initiatives or classroom setups may be modeled on best practices from other schools, there is no out of the box solution for educating students. Instead, things must be personalized in a way that allows teachers to keep what works while scrapping or modifying the rest. Dogmatically insisting from the beginning that the STEM classroom will look a certain way or will teach in a certain manner is liable to not only create unrealistic and unattainable goals, but it will also likely engender distaste and distrust for STEM education in the future in the eyes of the hampered educators.

Every parent wants the absolute best for their students. The idea that schools do not have it all figured out can at first seem unsettling. However, when new ideas are tried in an effort to increase the effectiveness of STEM education, schools should help parents realize that an adaptive learning process is more likely to help students long-term. Instead of providing a cookie cutter education that forces students to learn in the "approved" model for success, schools that allow for experimentation (and even occasional short-term failure) will better serve students over the long run of the academic year. Implementation takes time. Implementation takes flexibility. And implementation will never happen perfectly the first time. By helping parents and schools rid themselves of this myth of perfection, they can become better suited to adopt current and future changes to STEM education that can better prepare students for success in undergraduate STEM education.

Schools and teachers oftentimes like to look like they are always in control, and parents are comforted by this seeming authority. But STEM education requires a bit of art mixed in with the science. New approaches to STEM education take creativity, adaptability, and a willingness to abandon the old ways of doing things for the implementation of new and better practices.