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Experts discuss STEM progress

Speakers presented the latest in STEM education at the 4th SmartBrief STEM Pathways Summit.

5 min read

Career-Technical Education



What can educators do to prepare students for future STEM jobs?

On Oct. 20, K-20 STEM professionals — from education, government and private industry — gathered at the District Architecture Center in Washington, D.C. for SmartBrief’s 4th annual STEM Pathways Summit to discuss and share ideas about the future of STEM education.

The event featured discussions about a variety of STEM education issues, such as whole-district STEAM, immersive technologies in STEM and using Ted Talk principles to engage students in the STEM classroom. Don’t worry if you were unable to attend this year’s STEM Pathways Summit. We’ve summarized key takeaways from each speaker below:

Tracy Wagner

Tracy Wagner is the director of teaching and learning for Massachusetts’s Ipswich Public Schools. She discussed the value of whole-school and whole-district STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — education, describing her own experience leading a districtwide STEAM initiative, which is in its fourth year.

“STEAM is about critical thinking” Wagner said, adding that its focus is on fostering curiosity and problem-solving skills. Wagner began her initiative with a STEAM summer camp for educators. She also developed a 20-person STEAM team comprised of faculty and students, which functioned as a professional learning community, meeting monthly after school. Last year, the initiative culminated in a STEAM showcase, during which students demonstrated their projects to peers, family and community members.  

Angela DeHart

Angela DeHart, a family and consumer science teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, described her experience forming a student-led STEAM program. DeHart said she recognized STEM concepts in her curriculum, such as in a lesson about the design cycle of textile projects. She then used a Kickstarter campaign to launch a girls’ coding club. The club began an “Hour of Code” program, in which the middle-school club members introduced elementary-school students to basic STEM concepts like robotics.

Along with student presenters Abia and Aya, DeHart stressed the importance of student agency in STEM learning. “These kids have more access to information than any before, so we can’t answer all of their questions. We’ve got to let them think.” DeHart said. She lets her students go at their own pace, and, at times, they choose their own projects, she said.

Andrew Potter

Chief academic officer at Envision, Andrew Potter, discussed the potential of immersive learning as a means of preparing students for emerging STEM careers. Potter showcased how students can use virtual learning devices to act as surgeons, performing basic procedures in an operating room. This program, and the prospect of others like it, will allow students to explore careers without leaving the classroom, Potter said. He also implied that immersive learning could lessen a disturbing gap, sharing that while 96% of chief academic officers say their schools prepare students for the workforce, only 11% of business leaders agree.

Rachel Mann

Rachael Mann, of #TeachlikeTED, shared how adopting certain TED Talk speaker rules can improve educators’ classroom presence. A former educator herself, Mann applied a few of the “TED Commandments” to STEM teaching, including, “Thou shalt not trot out thy usual shtick” and “Thou shalt not flaunt thy ego; be vulnerable; show your failures as well as your successes.” She urged educators in attendance to keep their lessons fresh and to bring their real, vulnerable selves to the classroom. In closing, Mann instructed the audience to remember that laughter is good.  “When I started smiling at my students, my students started learning,” Mann explained. “Our emotions are contagious.”

Lindsey Gardner

Lindsey Gardner from the STEM Education Coalition provided an overview of federal policies that may affect STEM funding. Gardner described the Every Student Succeeds Act, which offers states some autonomy in choosing the factors by which they assess their schools. So far, of the 25 ESSA drafts submitted, 17 states included science assessments in their accountability systems and 17 included or are strongly considering including career and technology education. Gardner added that the White House issued a memo to the education department recognizing the connection between STEM skills and high-paying jobs and instructing officials to devote at least $200 million per year in competitive grant money towards high-quality STEM education.


During the closing Q&A, attendees asked the event’s speakers for concluding thoughts and for advice on engaging those uninterested in STEM. Abia, one of DeHart’s student presenters, weighed in on uninterested STEM students, “I would say: guide; don’t teach.” Nodding, DeHart added that educators should remember that their efforts are preparing students to shape their own futures. Regarding uninterested faculty, Wagner advised attendees to focus on building STEAM teams and presenting STEAM as a tool to facilitate creativity and critical thinking. Mann suggested teaching presentation literacy alongside STEM skills, so students can share their ideas effectively; and Gardner closed with a call to action for STEM educators: Go to your policymakers and tell them about the work your students are doing and why that work is important.  

Teresa Donnellan is an editorial assistant at SmartBrief.


For more SmartBrief STEM information, read SmartReport on STEM: Empowering Imagination. Check out all of SmartBrief’s education newsletters, covering career and technical education, educational leadership, math education and more.