What To Look For In STEM At Your Kids School

Today's science class doesn't look like yesterdays. Hero Images via Getty Images

You know that right along with a solid understanding of reading and writing that your child also needs a solid understanding of science and math in order to be successful in the future - even if she doesn't plan to become an engineer or computer programmer.  

While there has been a lot of buzz about the importance of STEM and STEM education reform in the US, there hasn't been a lot of quality information to help parents know what this new STEM education really looks like.

 You can't just rely on the use of acronyms to really be certain that your child is getting a quality education in science and related fields.

The main thing to remember is that STEM education has shifted away from memorizing facts to teaching interrelated concepts that can be used in real life by identifying problems and coming up with new and innovative solutions to those problems.

So, Science class has gone from boring lectures with a few labs to demonstrate what you were told to independent project and group assignments where students use their knowledge to learn about the world around them or to solve problems.  Here are some indicators that your child's school has shifted the focus to problem-solving

1 Lots of Hands-On Projects

Your child does not just read from a textbook and then answer quiz questions.  Instead, your child has projects.  This may translate to less homework each night with a large project that is due once a month or each quarter.

 For example, your child does not spend a great deal of time memorizing the different types of energy and how they are transferred, but instead is asked to make or find a device that has several different forms of energy, including heat, mechanical, or chemical. They must also be able to describe if the energy is kinetic or potential.

2 Combination of Group and Independent Assignments

The dreaded group project has become a main feature of modern STEM education.  Group work demands that students build the social skills of being able to work together to identify and solve a problem.  They must collaborate with one another -asking what the other students in their group think about the problem.  This means that each child will have e to learn how to explain the concept they see, and they will have to be able to understand what their group members are saying.  They have to have a conceptual understanding deep enough to talk about the project.

3 Assignments and Materials Relate To Real Life

Real life examples from the news or from the consumer marketplace are used to demonstrate and teach scientific concepts.  The study of chemical reactions and energy may lead to discussions about the viability of nuclear energy in your local community.  Computer programming classes may ask students to create an app for something useful for your family.

4 Interrelated Concepts

Science touches on many other topics, and the STEM classroom today takes advantage of that. Expect to hear discussion about the design and beauty of bridges when studying the structure of bridges in science.  How to write a well-reasoned and persuasive paper is just as likely to be assigned by your child's science teacher as it is in English.  The different concepts of STEM relate, and rely on other subjects to gain that real world application that makes STEM so useful for everyone today.  Policy issues, social studies, art and design, even music are all brought into the modern STEM classroom.  School students shouldn't be able to think of themselves as good at reading OR good at math and science, with no possibility of being good at both.  Instead, modern STEM makes use of all subjects.

5 Everyone Has Access To Challenging STEM Classes

I remember when I was in high school the only students in the single computer programming class were all boys from affluent families - and it was a small class.  I once overheard the teacher of that class complain to another teacher how disappointed he was that there just weren't any other students capable of taking computer science.  

Now many high schools have made computer science and basic programming classes available to all of their students, rather than a select few.  The teachers themselves have shifted their focus to teaching more foundational skills at a younger age, so that more students are ready to take these challenging classes.  Schools have also looked for ways to make challenging topics more accessible, and the collaborative  and hands-on emphasis has helped as well.  There are still challenges in many areas to getting quality STEM programs, but many schools are making progress.

Even struggling learners should be able to take STEM classes that are challenging and meaningful for them.  

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