Moving away from the traditional classroom

STEM and STEAM keep middle and high-schoolers engaged in the classroom

With many employers across New Hampshire struggling to find skilled workers to fill available positions, the need for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculums in the classroom for seventh through 12th- grade students is very real.

STEM programs have as much to do with changes in how students are taught as what students are taught in the classroom.

"We need to retrain teachers and how they teach," said Bob Baines of STEAM Ahead, which is offered during the school day in the Manchester School District. "We need to get away from the bells and 45-minute factory model classroom instruction model that still exists today."

For Baines, effective STEM programs—or STEAM, with the A referring to “Arts’—address educational needs that often go unmet in traditional school settings.

"Many students are bored with school and then you factor in social media," he said. "Too many schools are set up traditionally — students take notes and study for tests and end up forgetting most of what they have learned."

Former Manchester mayor, high school principal and college president, Baines said STEM curriculums, or any curriculum for that matter, benefit from modifications in the physical environment in which learning takes place. He cited six recently redesigned classrooms through STEAM Ahead at Manchester West High School as one example.

"We have furniture that moves and chairs on wheels," he said. "Flexible learning environments are critical."

At Portsmouth High School, Diane Canada, director of Career Technical Education, said she has begun to renovate a former lab into a makerspace that will be utilized by both computer science and robotics students.

"Half of the space will be a 'clean' end where there will be computers, a 3D printer, laser cutter and more," she said. "We have a shared goal to create career pathways into industry…and we know industry is ready for workers right now."

Industry participation

According to Tracey Tucker, executive director of New Heights, which works with Canada and the Portsmouth School District, effective STEM programs rely on industry input and support.

New Heights, founded in 1987, provides experiential learning programs in STEAM among other subjects, including adventure, to students grades three through 12 inside and outside the classroom.

"STEM and STEAM programs are designed with industry partners, all of whom are actively recruiting STEM and STEAM professionals to fill jobs that aren't getting filled because there are not enough qualified candidates, especially girls," she said.

Aside from financial support and assistance designing curriculums, Tucker said industry partners serve as mentors to students, another important component of STEM curriculums.

"Business professionals can mentor our kids and learn a lot while the kids can learn a lot from their mentors," she said.

Don Jalbert, director of technical studies at Milford High School, said STEM programs and events rely heavily on industry partners. He said these partnerships are especially crucial as they work as a district to define what constitutes "career ready."

"The four-year college mentality is not the only pathway, so having community partners come in here and discuss other possibilities with students is essential," he said.

According to Canada, when students can talk with people from an industry about every aspect of their work as well as "visit with them and see exactly what doing the job entails," it creates excitement.

"They get excited because they can envision what their career will look like on a day-to-day basis," she said. "They also feel like they are valued as prospective employees because adults other than their teachers take the time to work with them and teach them."

Jalbert agrees and said inclusion of industry partners in their STEM programs extends to professional development.

"We took staff and broke them down into three groups and sent them on three buses to Airmar, Hitchiner and Hollis Line Machine," he said. "Our high school teachers could get a picture of what it looks like beyond those walls [at the school] — that was some really cool professional development there."

Experiential learning

For many educators, the experiential learning that takes place in STEM programs may be their most important characteristic.

"The hands-on part is what keeps students engaged throughout their academic career," she said.

Baines agreed and said student engagement is not the only measurable outcome from well-designed STEM and STEAM programming.

"Attendance rates are at 97 percent in our program where traditional classrooms are 77 percent," he said. "There are also drastic reductions in tardiness and other indicators."

"STEM helps students develop problem-solving skills and promotes thinking outside the box. These programs put students through trial and error situations that demand them to not only think analytically, but creatively…These are often referred to as 21st-century skills, and hands-on opportunities in STEM are the perfect vehicle to develop them," Tucker added.

According to Baines, the experiential, hands-on component of STEM curriculums is augmented by group-based learning.

"When students work in groups, they can learn from each other," he said. "They can solve problems together and work collaboratively — these are the skills that are needed in the workplace."

With STEM learning, Tucker said students are placed in real-world situations with nearly instantaneous feedback, which is often provided by business mentors.

"For kids, it is important for them to connect the dots between the fun, hands-on activities that they are doing to the potential careers they could work toward as they progress through school," she said.

 Key considerations

As far as Jalbert is concerned, parental involvement and support may in fact be the most important factor behind the success of a STEM program.

"There are good, solid, well-paying career paths outside of the traditional four-year college route, but we have to have the parents be our advocates on the outside," he said. "We need to figure out how to message that."

For Baines, the key to an effective STEM program is to get buy-in from the entire community, which in the case of STEAM Ahead involves the University System of New Hampshire and Manchester Community College, in addition to local businesses.

In the Portsmouth School District, Canada said their initial STEM programming responded to requests by the Community College System of New Hampshire and the NH Charitable Foundation to create a computer science pathway.

At New Heights, their STEM programs rely on financial support as well as volunteers.

"A successful STEM or STEAM involves the entire community," she said. "Ultimately, the community will benefit, too, when our young people decide to stay in New Hampshire because they understand and recognize the opportunities that exist here." 

Rob Levey is CEO of Exponential Squared, a marketing and organizational development company focused on helping businesses achieve their business goals. Rob never strays too far from his roots – you will find his freelance writing in numerous publications, including Parenting NH.


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