When I spend a day at a school, I always look for signs of a rich STEM program. In every classroom I visit, I look for kids doing science investigations and engineering projects, as well as documentation of these activities posted on bulletin boards in the classrooms and hallways. When STEM is fully embraced by a school community, it almost bursts through the classroom doors. It’s difficult to contain the enthusiasm of both children and adults.
What does it take to become a STEM infused school? A recent visit I made to one of our STEM Institute partner schools, Tonti Elementary on Chicago’s south side, gave me some answers. I saw a group of teachers open to exploring and perfecting inquiry classroom practices, practices which might be new to them; visionary leadership inspiring and supporting their work; the willingness of all the adults to let kids pursue their curious natures; interesting stuff for kids to look at and explore; and external partnerships that bring resources into the classroom or kids to the resources. These are some of the dispositions and characteristics that lead to success in STEM education.
Here’s my personal checklist:
· Do I see evidence of students being seen as scientists and engineers by their teachers and themselves?
· Are the students keeping science journals, recording their observations, doing scientific drawings or designing solutions to engineering challenges, and is this a consistent practice? (Several months into the school year, do I see pages and pages of recorded experiences of the children doing science?)
· Is the science inquiry-based and hands-on rather than textbooks based? You know, the old memorize the vocabulary, read the book out loud, and answer the questions at the end of the chapter?
· Are the students excited when they are asked if they want to do an investigation? Do they know what to do and immediately spring into action? Do they clearly understand the process and procedures because they are doing science and engineering on a frequent, preferably daily, basis?
· Are the subjects integrated in such a way that more science and engineering can be done because language arts and math support them and vice versa?
· Have teachers put up photos of students doing science? Are students’ scientific drawings posted? Are their engineering solutions on display? In other words, is there a visible documentary record that these are valued activities?
If I can answer yes to the above questions, I take it as a clear indication that the school is at least well on its way to being a genuine STEM school.
And Tonti is just such a school.
One of the things that struck me on my last visit was that every classroom had something posted that portrayed the children as scientists. These weren’t cookie cutter displays either, the same in each classroom or purchased from a teacher store. They were hand made posters or signs or student drawings, images that sent a very clear message to the students in that classroom. “These are the things that scientists do. And you are a scientist.” The Tonti teachers demystified science and engineering for their students. Scientists aren’t older white guys wearing glasses and white coats. Scientists can just as easily be young as old, female as male, a person of color as white, and they can even be children.
The images above are from 5 different classrooms at Tonti. If you look closely, I think you’ll agree that though the styles may be different, the message is loud and clear. From the child who pictured herself or himself as a scientist to the Tonti children in their bright yellow shirts whose photos doing science are part of a collage of a diverse group of scientists, science feels part of the DNA of this school. Everyone at Tonti is a scientist. And, perhaps not surprisingly, student achievement tracks student engagement, for this school has gone from being on probation to joining the ranks of the Level 1 schools in the system.
Part 2 will illustrate some of the other items on my personal checklist. And we’ll take a look at one special teacher who combines old and new to the delight of his students.
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