It’s one thing to get representatives from 200 plus national and regional education organizations in one place to brainstorm how to get more teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
It’s quite another to actually translate that to successful STEM teachers in the classroom.
But teachers and representatives from organizations, school districts, and public schools from around the nation came together to talk about how to achieve President Obama’s goal of recruiting and retaining 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021 at 100Kin10’s annual summit, held at the Museum of Science and Industry this week. For attendees with a Chicago connection, a big part of the summit was understanding the how broad solutions fit into the everyday challenges they face in their specific schools or organization.
“It’s very optimistic and idealistic,” said Nicole Lum, a Chicago Public School science teacher at Orr High School on the west side, who was invited to the conference. She pointed out that what will come first for helping students succeed in CPS is what students bring from home: making sure students’ social and emotional and social needs are met, so they can retain and move forward with what they learn.
Lack of resources and school (and school district) politics also make those in-classroom lessons more difficult added Darrin Collins, a science teacher at Phillips High School on the south side. For example, he said the last teachers strike and school closings had educators and students on edge for years before anything even happened, which affected morale on both sides.
That being said, the two are working on a partnership to share STEM resources and were looking forward to discussing alternative pathways to STEM careers.
“What other vocational education can we provide in STEM?” asked Lum, suggesting they broaden the definition of STEM careers beyond doctors and high-level engineering, which often requires years of costly schooling.
For Jesch Reyes, STEM director at Evanston/Skokie school district, the issue lies in how to even begin to define STEM.
“There’s an ambiguity with it. Is it mathematics? Is it science? Is it the integration of technology and engineering?” he said. “Everyone is going to name STEM for the sake of sounding really chic, but you really have to sift through that and think: what do you really want from STEM…and what fits the needs of kids?”
That being said, the district has deemed a STEM a growing need: Reyes’ position is new in the district, and he’s only been on the job about 10 months (before that he created math curriculum for the University of Chicago and CPS). So far, he has found that it is better that STEM isn’t looked at as rote curriculum, but instead focus on what those subjects can inspire in students.
“Where we’ve landed is that it is a way of thinking,” he said. “What are the habits of mind that you are using to grapple with situations and problems? Not just in a professional setting, but in everyday life.”
With all this said, STEM has to start somewhere, and Chicago has become a bit of a headquarters for the movement around improving early childhood education. One of the organizations at the center of the charge is Chicago’s Erikson Institute, a graduate school that focuses solely on child development. Jeanine Brownell, assistant director of programming for the early mathematics program at Erikson, said that for a long time early childhood education has been seen as a space for generalists or untrained teachers, which puts kids at a disadvantage from the get-go. She said there have to be teachers who understand how key early childhood ed is in inspiring kids’ interest in STEM and to build their agency and authority in the subject as they grow older.
“Part of it is [teachers] seeing themselves as a STEM teacher,” she said. “We need to ignite their passion for it, claim STEM for early childhood.”
Beyond Chicago, teachers, organizations, businesses, and districts at the conference spent the first day of the conference laying out the
difficulties that lie ahead in retaining and recruiting 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021, the goal of 100Kin10. On multicolored Post It notes, attendees wrote down their thoughts and ideas to various challenges and stuck them on big white boards with headers like “Too many STEM teachers lack relevant, high-quality professional development and support” and “STEM teachers need flexibility and room to experiment.” One theme across all the boards showed a clear challenge: schools are underfunded, which makes professional development and resource building tough. In response, businesses wrote that schools should look to outside communities more for financial help. Another common response was that standardized testing, with its emphasis on math, over the science, technology, and engineering parts of STEM, can take precedent over less assessable fields and can consume teachers’ daily schedules.
The point of the conference was to bring together these challenges with all the stakeholders, in one place. Though the issues are significant, Reyes said moments like these are what start the slow, but steady solutions.
“How do we connect the dots to unify our forces?” he said. “We all want to support young learners. We need to build a strategy to support each other more.”