Convincing more students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM )studies is a goal widely shared by educators, policymakers, and industry representatives concerned about the leaky pipeline of students preparing to become the next generation of innovators. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of solutions. When more than 200 of the nation’s top math and science educators gathered at the White House this fall to receive the 2016 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, they exchanged practical ideas for igniting student interest in STEM.
Among the honorees was Dr. Jaunine Fouché, science curriculum supervisor at the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania. This unique residential school, founded as a philanthropic effort more than a century ago, serves more than 2,000 students in pre-K–12 from across the U.S. Every student comes from a background of poverty. Education and wraparound services are provided at no cost.
In a recent conversation, Fouché shared strategies for making science education more engaging to diverse learners. Here are the highlights.
EDUTOPIA: What’s helping to get your students more interested in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math?
DR. JAUNINE FOUCHÉ: We grow the pipeline for STEAM [that’s STEM + an “A” for arts], starting in kindergarten, by providing students with problem-based learning and design thinking opportunities. We have an innovation lab in our elementary school—we’re literally developing little STEAM kids. As students progress through middle school and high school, we have expanded our programming and opportunities. We’ve worked on vertical alignment so that everyone’s pulling in the same direction, and that includes students. We’ve had to respond to increased demand. That’s a wonderful problem.
EDUTOPIA: How are you making learning more engaging?
FOUCHÉ: The old paradigm is that you learn the content in school and then at some point, when you’re older, there’s this magic tipping point where you know enough to start doing something with it. That’s faulty logic. We give students the opportunity to explore what they can do with what they know, as early as possible. We’re trying to harness that restless curiosity that students have when they’re young and nurture it rather than allowing it to atrophy. Honoring student voice and student choice is essential. We invite kids to explore topics of their own interest and ask open-ended questions. They’re not just doing labs to show you that the teacher is right. Students need to explore data to reach their own conclusions. It’s about action learning that gets kids exploring.
EDUTOPIA: Can you share some examples?
FOUCHÉ: Beginning in the elementary grades, our students are learning about coding, robotics, and logic. They engage with authentic issues that we have on campus. For example, one project started during a security drill to simulate an active shooter situation. Students thought they had a better idea to secure the classroom door in the event of an emergency. They were given time and resources to explore that engineering challenge and came up with a solution for a security bar. In the high school, art students were using paper that didn’t meet their needs. They approached our graphic arts students who then collaborated with our agriculture and environmental education staff to use grasses from the fields on campus to make paper. They explored multiple prototypes of creating papers that would meet the requirements of art students.
EDUTOPIA: Do these ideas ever result in actual products?
FOUCHÉ: Some kids get so invested in their idea, they want to make it real. We’ve always had opportunities for students to sell produce and other products made on campus, but now we’re expanding to a STEAM project market. Students will be able to engage in research and development, do market analysis, and develop their entrepreneurial skills as part of a student-run business.
EDUTOPIA: What’s helping to attract more girls and under-represented students to science and technical studies?
FOUCHÉ: We don’t judge anyone by saying, “You’re a STEAM kid.” Or, “You’re not.” We believe everyone has the ability and aptitude. We simply need to provide them with opportunities and resources. Think of the film The Matrix. In the film, people plug in and download the learning they need in the moment so they can move forward. Our students are supported to be able to do that here on campus. They start with a challenge they want to engage. They can use the content knowledge and skills they have, but they’re also supported with time and resources to find out additional information that’s relevant. They don’t have to wait.
EDUTOPIA: How about connections with experts?
FOUCHÉ: Starting in fourth grade, our students start to explore career and technical education. That continues through high school. By ninth grade, they begin to narrow their focus and go deep. We connect them with internships off campus where they work alongside experts. Our students interested in biotech, for example, are interns at the Hershey Medical Center. We’ve had students work with engineers at Hershey Park to prototype new rides and roller coasters. These opportunities expand as our partners recognize the value of the students we send to them.
EDUTOPIA: How does your approach to assessment support the personalized learning that you’re describing?
FOUCHÉ: Assessment needs to inform instruction. That means adults have to stop hoarding the data. Years ago, I stepped away from just providing students with a single score. I started breaking it down so students knew which content they had mastered and which they didn’t. It was easy to get students to come in for help because they could see where their deficiencies were. They were also really open about reaching out to their classmates for help.
To provide more meaningful, valid data to our students, I had to teach myself some statistics. I ended up collaborating with some people at the state [department of education] and took some classes. Then I taught those skills to the rest of my science teaching staff. I’ll admit, some teachers were intimidated by statistics. I explained that it’s like getting blood work from your doctor. You don’t need to know how they did the test; all you need to know is what’s the range you’re supposed to be in.
So we give them ranges and then ask: What does that mean? What can you do about it? We began to increase the rigor of assessments and matched our assessments to state standards and Next Generation Science Standards. Once you do that, then everything begins to shift. Teachers don’t have to be the gatekeepers of data. Students are empowered when they can learn from assessments. They know exactly what content they know and don’t know. We’re transparent about it. It’s not about whether you got an A. It’s about, are you progressively improving? That’s empowering for everyone—students and teachers alike.
More STEAM Ahead
Here are two resources that support active, engaging STEAM learning:
- 100Kin10 is leading a crowdsourcing campaign around the driving question: How might we cultivate curiosity and problem solving in our students through active and authentic STEM?
- Hacking STEM, an initiative from Microsoft to bring creative ideas to education, offers monthly ideas for engaging lessons.