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The lowdown on STEM schools

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By Crystal Yednak

What you might find in a STEM classroom

  • Students behaving as scientists: On a typical day, they may be recording observations, carrying out experiments, or conducting their own research. Learning is project-based and sometimes messy, but students learn by doing, not by rote memorization.
  • Connecting STEM learning to a career: To help students understand what kind of STEM jobs are available, schools may bring in tutors from local technology companies or organize internships at hospitals or research institutions.
  • Integrating with other subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math subjects are woven into other areas of the curriculum, with courses such as the “History of Science” or “Environmental History.”
  • Making use of technology: By taking quizzes on their laptops, entering data into spreadsheets, and creating graphs to illustrate the results of their experiments, students are using technology in their daily studies. STEM programs such as L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, TN, participate in one-to-one programs through which students are given their own individual computer (or iPad, in this case) for their work. Teachers may have web pages featuring necessary classroom materials, which may also allow students to work ahead if they want to or review a lesson if need be.
  • Noise: Classrooms are not quiet and are often arranged so that students can sit and work in groups. This encourages collaboration as students discuss their work and challenge each other’s ideas.

Questions to ask when considering a STEM school

  • Is this really a STEM school? With the recent national focus on creating more STEM graduates, “You see lots of places springing up calling themselves STEM schools, but they don’t necessarily have a clearly articulated explanation of what makes them STEM,” said Christopher Kolar, founding co-chair of the Committee for the Advancement of STEM Specialty Schools. Does the school offer a full STEM program beyond the science and mathematics offered in typical schools? A look at the course schedule may indicate whether the coursework is there to challenge students and prep them for higher-level college STEM courses. For instance, are pre-calculus, calculus, and AP calculus offered? Can students take a second year of physics or engineering? Consider the breadth and depth of the school’s STEM offerings.
  • Does it help prepare students for a STEM career? To be sure the school is properly preparing students for the jobs of the future, ask school administrators if they communicate with students’ potential employers. Businesses should be partners, bringing in resources, providing role models for students, and keeping staff up-to-date on new developments so the curriculum stays relevant.
  • Are students working with computers and other technology? Or are the new iPads sitting in a box in the corner because teachers have not been trained on how to incorporate them into lesson plans? Ask for examples of how laptops (or tablets) help with instruction and if the administration provides ongoing technology training for teachers. Likewise, does the school have the lab equipment necessary for students to do a broad range of experiments?
  • Do teachers have backgrounds in the subjects they are teaching? Science should be taught by teachers who are excited about and understand science. Also, do mentoring programs exist to encourage teachers to improve their STEM skills and knowledge?

What supporters say

If we want to have the scientists and engineers to solve future problems, STEM schools are important to the country’s future: finding sustainable energy sources, keeping water supplies clean, and discovering new technologies that help us compete in a global economy. Supporters say there is an urgent need to attract and educate more students in these fields and keep them engrossed throughout their elementary, high school, and college years. And from the student’s perspective, if they have the skills employers need, they will have an easier time finding a job upon graduation.

What critics say

By increasing the emphasis on science, math, technology, and engineering, some worry that students may lose out on other key skills. Electives like foreign languages and the arts help foster creativity and broaden students’ world view. Some STEM programs try to make up for this by offering arts programs after school; others say they recognize the need and incorporate as much arts education as they can into the school day.

Because girls historically have not shown the same interest in STEM fields as boys, critics say the schools need to do more to reach out to girls and get them excited about science by providing role models in female scientists or crushing traditional gender stereotypes in the classroom.

A final word of advice

Make sure you understand how fully the school has embraced a STEM curriculum. If you are expecting your child to be taking advanced physics courses and the school only offers one introductory course, both you and your child could be disappointed. Ask the school to see sample schedules. As always: visit any school you're considering. Talk to teachers about the ways students use technology in class. Poke your head in the labs. Ask what professional development opportunities exist for teachers to stay on top of their game and whether the school has networked with local companies and research institutions.

Crystal Yednak is a mom of two and a freelance writer who writes about education and parenting topics for national and regional publications.

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