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Finding the right STEM fit

Iowa district and facilitator strive to continually improve their STEM program

Published December 21, 2017
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MECHANICSVILLE, IA – As STEM reveals itself to be more than just another trend, schools are giving careful consideration to their individual implementations. This is no simple issue. Situations range widely from school to school and even from class hour to class hour. The expectations that states and that parents hold for STEM success are still evolving. And of course, the many heady offerings in the marketplace must be weighed against practical considerations of time and budgets.

When Iowa’s North Cedar Community School District went looking for the right tools to make STEM a priority at the elementary level, these factors and others hovered around the decision. The elementary program was not a stranger to STEM. The tools already in place were valuable, but the district wanted to go further. There was a desire to meet more of the Next Generation Science Standards, to emphasize literacy, and to incorporate a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).

Surveying the available solutions, K-6 STEM Specialist Deb Rouse toured several schools, including those with Pitsco Missions. “I really liked that the Missions classrooms were almost entirely student driven,” she said. “Students have an opportunity to take on roles that might surprise others. They might find they shine as a leader or as a communicator, or they can show off some other soft skills that are critical in a work environment but not always easy to foster in the regular classroom.”

After this period of consideration, Missions and Elementary STEM Units were incorporated into two K-6 STEM labs (one at each of the district’s two elementary centers) with Rouse as the facilitator. It wasn't long before Rouse observed objective improvements brought by the labs.

Here is one. Previously the schools met their STEM ambitions in part using traveling science kits that had to be regularly unpacked and packed. This took time. Rouse saw that the lab curricula addressed many of the same science standards, however, and without the time-management issue. This recognition has led to less reliance on the kits and more reliance on the labs. This has given some valuable time back to teachers.

“Moving the NGSS to the lab seemed like a natural way to take some of the pressure off of [teachers] and maintain a student-centered, inquiry-based environment since the lab is fully equipped at all times and students access the materials with ease,” said Rouse.

The other line of evidence for the labs’ success is more subjective – but no less important. Witnessing the reactions, realizations, and enthusiasm of students has given her confidence in the new program the district has chosen. “Not only are our students becoming more interested and knowledgeable in science and engineering, they are applying skills from their math classes to real-life science. They are making observations, they are drawing and labeling diagrams, they are making connections and bringing in objects from their home or trips with family to share with me and with their Crew.”

The elementary program at North Cedar is still evolving, but Rouse states that excitement is in the air. She regularly sends updates to parents and the community about what students are up to in the STEM lab. And she is working to include STEM on the report card, focusing on a few key “power standards.” The administration and school board are supportive. And Rouse often hears feedback from parents and from classroom teachers that students are bringing their newfound excitement for STEM into life outside the lab.

“I feel like we are onto something here,” said Rouse. “I am very proud of all the work our district has done at every level to make STEM a priority K-12.”

“What I took away from the seminar and STEM Camp was an excitement to see how the students and teachers would adapt to the new STEM programs. I felt more confident in my role as the teacher in leading and assisting my students to be successful.”

– Jana Price, engineering instructor, UMS-Wright Preparatory School, Mobile, Alabama

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