Strengthening the sy-STEM

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the first meeting of our STEM/STEAM collegial circle. These groups are designed to provide educators from across our region with the opportunity to engage in conversation and share practices and initiatives from within their own schools and districts. In these sessions, facilitators and collegial circle members help shape the agenda and the work of the group.

And it was through that collaborative design that the group was considering one of their focal areas to explore: What makes a learning opportunity truly “STEM”? As I listened to their conversation, I reflected on just how busy the “STEM” landscape has become. With language fluctuating from “STEM” to “STEAM” to “STREAM”, it can be very challenging to navigate. What direction should a school or district take? How can we focus on the underlying principles that a “STEM” or “STEAM” or “STREAM” focus is meant to foster? How do we make sure that, at the core, a “STEM” initiative is truly STEM?

As I sat asking myself these questions, I kept coming back to three ideas that I believe, if relied upon, can help schools and districts strengthen their STEM/STEAM/STREAM systems.

Don’t Get Lost in the Language. One of the challenges when talking any variation of STEM is that it can become very difficult to get lost in the language. “STEM” represents “Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics” while “STEAM” stands for “Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts-Mathematics”. Add in an “R” for “Research” (or “Reading”) and now you have “STREAM”. While each of these is different in their own right, in many more ways, they share similar goals. Rather than getting hung up on the semantics of things, schools and districts can instead focus in on the commonalities that exist, which leads perfectly into the second organizational idea below.

Integrate. All of the STEM variants are similar in one key respect. They all focus on integrating and tying together disciplines that have much in common, but might otherwise find themselves separated from one another. What STEM, STEAM, STREAM and others attempt to do is showcase how valuable it is to think in terms of unifying learning, rather than separating it into a variety of silos. By focusing on a STEM way of thinking, we honor the fact that nowhere in life (except for during schooling) is learning separated by discipline. By adopting an integrated view, we can, at best, showcase to learners just how dependent every discipline is on one another.

Make It A Theme, Rather Than a Thing. While I welcome pushback on this, I feel strongly that STEM/STEAM/STREAM, and all other variants, are a way of being, rather than a “thing” to do. I worry that through STEM classes, we are attempting to thread an all-expansive string through a too-tiny hole. While we believe we are doing justice to the fact that STEM is more than any one subject, by building a “course” that still is separate from others, we are continuing to promote the siloes that already exist in each of our schools and districts. Instead, why not work to connect the disciplines and courses that already do exist? Why not build capstone projects or year-long experiences that showcase how the STEM disciplines can live together, rather than separate them out into a class that may only end up being taken by a few?

Whether we call it “STEM” or “STEAM” or “STREAM” (or anything else for that matter) the goal is the same: to help learners experience a key component of learning that we know is a necessity but that our structures sometimes push us to forget. What is that component? Simply that learning is never one-dimensional; disciplines were never designed to live on their own plane. By welcoming the fact that STEM is more about connections than it is about what specifically we connect, we can become better able to exhibit, and embody, the web-like nature of learning that lasts.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:www.fredende.com.

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