Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Why STEM Education Matters

Educators from across the great state of North Carolina have been bombarded recently with information demonstrating an increasingly value of ‘STEM’ engagement. But, what does STEM really mean? Ask educators only five years ago and many may have quickly and accurately described an emerging aspect of science called ‘stem cell’ research. But much has changed across our country and across our state. We now understand the STEM acronym to mean Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. We hear the words innovation, creativity and critical thinking linked to the acronym. Still, I found in my work that STEM education means different things to different people.

For knowledge sake, there are a variety of starting points for elementary educators to find true meaning in ‘STEM’. Did you know that North Carolina has an exciting center called the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center (https://www.ncsmt.org/)? Anyone can find critically important and relevant STEM “strategies that engage the mind” on the interactive web portal. For instance, supplementary STEM lessons and units (i.e. weather, forces and motion) are maintained there. In practice, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) has clearly outlined and articulated what a quality STEM program looks like (http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/stem/). Actual STEM attributes are available to guide any school in earning a coveted STEM designation from the state. For instance, increasingly popular and relevant engineering education connections and applications can be found here.

The amount of readily available STEM information, resources and activities grows day by day. But, what does STEM mean to me as an educator? Simply put, STEM education is the true practical intersection of content disciplines. Instead of starting with content strands and topics to be covered in the Common Core and Essential Standards, think of actual problems children can solved when applying the content to real world problems. STEM is an actual mindset. As current director for UNC Wilmington’s Center for Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (http://www.uncw.edu/cestem/), we design professional development that engage teachers in problem based learning that requires content knowledge and understanding from different disciplines…like math and science. We use technology as a tool in our resources and encourage engineering as the application of learned skills. STEM literacy occupies the true meaning of problem based learning. But be aware, true STEM engagement also involves real and active partnerships. It means reaching out to businesses and corporate interests. It means working with community colleges and universities. And, it means working across interdisciplinary teams in your schools.

So, I’m often asked, “What is the easiest way a school can get involved with STEM education?” While there is not one single answer to this question, I provide this simple recommendation as a beginning for school involvement: Elementary Science Olympiad (http://www.sciencenc.com/). I’ve been fortunate to co-direct UNC Wilmington’s Science Olympiad over the past 10 years, and if there is one single competition that encapsulates the interdisciplinary nature of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, it is Science Olympiad. There are other great competitions across the state, but Science Olympiad is the largest and most comprehensive. So, don’t delay and get your kids involved in the competition!

Dr. Dennis S. Kubasko directs the Center for Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (CESTEM) on the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). He is an associate professor in the Watson College of Education and has been preparing future science teachers for the past 13 years. Dr. Kubasko is co-director for the UNC Wilmington Regional Science Olympiad serving close to 1000 middle school and high school STEM infused children in the Southeastern North Carolina area. He also coordinates and leads the international field experience to Belize for college seniors and graduate students. Dr. Kubasko taught high School Biology in the suburban Philadelphia public schools for 7 years.