Having worked at a school with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), I often notice a tension. In a STEM-focused school, there seems to be value placed on the topics in the acronym itself, but perhaps less value on subjects not explicitly mentioned. This seems to me to be a problem.
Just because a school is focused on STEM—and the ideas presented here apply also to STEAM schools, which add a focus on the arts—doesn’t mean that history doesn’t matter. The same can be said for every other subject. As an English and social studies teacher at a STEM school, I struggled with this, and had many conversations with fellow teachers, administrators, and coaches to navigate the focus on STEM while meeting other priorities I had for learning in my classroom. Meeting the demands of the STEM curriculum and of the other courses in the full curriculum can be done—here are a few ideas about how to achieve that.
We all have priorities, we all have beliefs, we all have values. As an English language arts teacher, I value the study of literature, and in fact, my standards call me to focus on literary texts. I needed to have conversations with other teachers to share this priority and to find ways to support the larger STEM mission. We had to balance curricula and find the appropriate times to work on specific standards. For example, I knew I could easily support a STEM unit with a unit on informational writing, but I also had to have time for my unit on poetry. An elementary teacher may choose to focus some of their day on STEM and other parts of the day on other important topics. Teachers should have conversations and map their curricula to find appropriate fits and to strike the balance we all need in supporting the larger STEM vision.
Implement PBL Units Together
As we know, project-based learning (PBL) and STEM are a great fit. A project can focus on an authentic issue in science or maybe an arts design challenge. There are numerous possibilities, and teachers across disciplines and priorities can find ways to work together to accomplish a common goal. Not every subject must integrate, but there should be some level of integration. If you teach many subjects (as many elementary teachers do), consider developing a PBL unit side by side with another teacher who shares your grade level. When we implement a curriculum through authentic projects, we can learn from each other and find meaningful ways to support a STEM vision.
Swap Lead and Support Positions
When you integrate, the focus shouldn’t necessarily be on the quantity of time required. We as teachers may feel that we should each be getting the same amount of time on a unit or project, but I think that shouldn’t be the highest priority. For example, I spent two to three weeks on the informational writing unit mentioned above, but the science teacher I was partnering with spent approximately five weeks on the project. I was an integral part of the project, but it wasn’t about the amount of time. I was the support teacher, but in a future unit, I served as a lead and asked for support from my math colleague. As you support STEM education and STEM units or projects, decide on who will lead and who will provide support, and switch it up to ensure all teachers and subjects are valued.
Focus on Success Skills
Everyone can support students in building success skills such as collaboration and communication. Teachers should collaborate to identify these skills and how students can demonstrate them. There should be alignment about expectations regarding these skills so that students demonstrate them at a point in time and also demonstrate progress in them as they move up in grades. These success skills can help students in any STEM field and are an easy entry point to collaboration for any teacher.
STEM education is a wonderful focus for learning, but it isn’t the only focus. Even in a STEM school, there are other priorities in terms of teaching and learning. However, we can learn from aspects of STEM education to push our thinking in terms of our own teaching. For example, as we started to collaborate to develop integrated projects, I was inspired by what other disciplines were doing. The science teacher wanted to do a design challenge, and our math colleague wanted to connect statistics to relevant concepts. Those are ideas any teacher might find appealing. Non-STEM teachers can find entry points into STEM education from a practical standpoint, and they can learn from principles of STEM to reimagine learning in their own classrooms.