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Students share insights about real-world learning

5 min read

Career-Technical Education

SmartBrief recently published an interactive, in-depth digital magazine about building inclusive pathways to STEM careers. The report featured the following article highlighting student insights about real-world learning. Access SmartReport on STEM for more tips from students, educators and other experts.

STEM classes teach more than science, technology, engineering and math, say students from the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School — also known as Sci High — who participated in a panel discussion at ACTE’s CareerTech VISION 2015. Sci High is a public charter school. Of the 425 students enrolled in 2015, 55% are female, 45% are male, 83% are African-American and 83% qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to the school.

Here are some life lessons the students gleaned from their courses:

Hands-on learning makes it stick. Classes that give students hands-on experience with the same processes and procedures practiced by real professionals increase engagement and understanding, said junior Kascie Flotte and senior Juan Rosa.

Flotte described the crime-scene labs she and her classmates run in their biomedical-science class. “It just shows the tedious work that scientists have to go through when doing lab work,” she explained. “It’s always hands-on. You actually feel like you’re in a lab and you’re doing what an actual scientist would do in a situation like that.”

Rosa concurred. “We’re cavemen learning how to make the wheel for the first time,” he said. “It’s just like we’re actually making something, then trying it out. We understand what we’re doing.”

Play nice. Collaborative work, integral to Sci High’s curriculum, lets students hone their communication skills and practice working with different groups of people, something that Flotte acknowledged is a struggle for her at times. “[It is] kind of hard because sometimes you have those people who don’t really focus, so you have to learn how to communicate with different personalities,” she said. She credited those experiences, though, as helping her better understand others and wrestle through difficult projects.

Senior Neal Ricks said group and partner projects took him out of his comfort zone. “If I can do something on my own, I’d rather do it on my own,” he said. His A+ certification course required him to work with a partner, an experience Ricks said ultimately was beneficial. “I worked with a partner, learned how to communicate with him and collaborate.”

Remain open to other careers. Sophomore Alexis Nguyen planned to be a pharmacist until she did an internship at a local children’s hospital. The experience revealed some interesting surprises.

“I’m not very good at chemistry,” she conceded. “Now I want to be a nurse, instead of a pharmacist. I just want to help people. Nursing is good for me.”

Flotte made a similar discovery during an internship at a veterinary clinic. Even though she loves animals, she plans to pursue a pharmaceutical career. “Veterinary is not actually my forte,” she explained. “I didn’t really like it as much as I thought I would. You learn through experience.”

Be a creative problem solver. There’s more than one way to solve a problem or work through a process, said junior John Mathis, describing the work he did in his engineering class. Students are encouraged to follow their imagination as they move through the design process, to try different approaches and learn from their mistakes. Mathis said he enjoyed the freedom to be creative.

“Honestly, I think that’s what interests me to be an engineer,” he said. “I have more freedom to do what I want and explore.”

Crush the glass ceiling. Ricks told the story of his computer-science teacher who, when she was in college, was taken aback by a professor who expressed surprise to see her in his computer-science class. The professor told her she was a rarity among computer-science students — a female and black. The field is dominated by white men, the professor said. The experience stayed with the future high-school teacher, and she passes this story on to her students, not simply for inspiration, but also to reinforce their responsibility to break through glass ceilings.

“This is why we need to get out, branch out and teach other kids,” he said. “We need to teach the importance of this — that a company will hire you because ‘Wow, you actually did this.’ ”

Focus on learning — not GPAs. STEM is not just for the students with the high grade point averages — it’s for everyone, Flotte said.

“It’s not about being smart — it’s about learning,” she said, crediting her teachers for emphasizing the value of the learning process. “It’s not about quizzes and grades. Those are still important, but it’s mostly about learning. I feel like we lose that in grades.”

Flotte said students tend to avoid pursuing STEM because they think it’s only for the superscholar. She encourages schools to dispel this myth.

“You don’t have to be ridiculously smart,” she said. “You can do it, just like anybody else. It’s empowering.”

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Kanoe Namahoe is the editor for SmartBrief on EdTech and SmartBrief on Workforce.