Creating More STEM Leaders
• Of the 20 fastest growing occupations projected for 2014, 15 of them require significant mathematics or science preparation to successfully compete for a job.
• Our nation has a shortage of qualified math/science/STEM teachers
• Our students’ math and science skills are simply inadequate.
Of course, none of that is really news. It’s more like a recipe for disaster. Businesses and industry have been asking for a better prepared workforce for years, and volatile 21st Century workforce demands compel us to hone in on knowledge and skills our students really need.
One particularly good question to think about: How can we ask teachers to prepare lessons in subjects in which they lack background knowledge? It’s an important question, of course, but it is often where many STEM initiatives start and stop. They focus on the short-term professional development needs.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg according to my friends on Mobile, Alabama’s Engaging Youth through Engineering (EYE) staff. Preparing teachers is but one part of a much bigger STEM solution, and we must work this problem from every angle. A complex curriculum innovation that seeks to integrate engineering design strategies into science, mathematics and technology requires community wide support, and that means leadership development that scales from the classroom to the executive suite.
A STEM leadership academy
Imagine you are partnered with a large school district that plans to implement a STEM program in 17 middle schools, and it’s your job to help that happen. That’s the situation with the Engaging Youth through Engineering (EYE) program. EYE has far less staff than needed to successfully implement and support STEM programs in that many schools. But Dr. Susan Pruet, Director of EYE, has a well-researched plan.
In Mobile, STEM is viewed as part of a K-12 workforce and economic development strategy, and implementing STEM requires support and leadership at all levels. With a grant from the Toyota USA Foundation, Pruet has established the EYE on STEM Leadership Academy. In the summer of 2012 this unique Academy began preparing both the business and education communities to provide ongoing STEM leadership and support.
The Leadership Academy works with four tiers of STEM leaders, and each group is critically important.
1 • Business and Industry
A STEM initiative needs a core of respected business leaders who understand the feasibility of STEM education and can talk the talk. Empowering the business community to do this is one component of the Leadership Academy. Business leaders are generally agreeable – even enthusiastic – about supporting STEM, but they must be knowledgeable advocates.
These leaders know that students need to be able to apply the math and science they are learning to solve real-world problems. They know that these future employees need experience in being innovative problem solvers, team players, and communicators. But do they know that most districts have not allotted time for this in the curriculum? Basic STEM skills are difficult to teach to an employee after graduation. Who better that employers to affirm that this learning needs to take place throughout the education process? Business leaders are also the link to getting volunteers to help students during classroom STEM projects.
2 • District and School Administrators
A well-developed STEM program has a transformative effect on the entire education process in a school and a district. Accordingly, a variety of district-level leaders, including school principals, are involved in the EYE on STEM Leadership Academy. In addition to the usual players, such as the Division of Curriculum and Instruction, leaders from other divisions – instructional technology, career tech, and special education for example – are drawn into the circle.
Certain things must continue on after the initial groundwork is done to ensure that the STEM initiative goes beyond project status and becomes an established way of doing business. A district can develop leaders, but these STEM leaders must have an established and ongoing way of supporting STEM. If a district has STEM specialists, how is the district going to use them? District and school leaders in the Academy work together around a common vision to make these decisions.
3 • STEM Specialists
These are out-of-classroom experts who work with teachers. They are being trained as STEM specialists through the Leadership Academy — learning the What, Why and How of STEM so they can do a better job of integrating STEM into their work as they develop educational programs for teachers, students and the community. This group includes organizations such as the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI), the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the GulfQuest Maritime Museum, the Environmental Studies Center, the Gulf Coast Exploreum, as well as retired educators, college staff and others. These emerging STEM specialists are part of a broad, informal educator population who will help provide an all-important ongoing STEM support network for K12 teachers.
4 • Classroom Teacher Leaders
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. This fourth tier of Leadership Academy participants consists of practicing teachers nominated by leaders from a variety of areas. Nominees attend an information session, then receive an application. Of those who seek to participate, 18 are selected to become part of the Academy’s STEM Teacher Leader Program. Through this program they will learn to serve as STEM teacher leaders and change agents for implementing and integrating STEM into the required curriculum in the Mobile area. These teachers will serve as school-based leaders and grade level STEM experts able to provide critical support for colleagues, including online coaching and assistance.
As an FYI, the Academy has ambitious goals for these STEM teacher leaders. The teacher curriculum involves three strands: Applied STEM Content, integrated-STEM (i-STEM) Practices, and (the all-important) Leadership Skills. The two-year program for teachers consists of specially designed institutes, workshops, reflection seminars and practicum experiences. Participation will not only help these teachers understand how to use engineering design challenges as an instructional strategy, it will deepen their own content knowledge and develop the leadership skills needed to support other teachers as they implement STEM reform.
The ultimate goal
The ultimate goal of the EYE on STEM Leadership Academy is to have STEM-savvy community leaders and a staff of knowledgable and fully supported math and science teachers in each school, with STEM experts in place at each grade level.
Stepping back from Mobile and thinking more broadly about the nation’s STEM education needs, Dr. Pruet argues that wherever people are trying to implement STEM curriculum, they must figure out what it is the education system needs to accomplish, how STEM will help them do that, and what STEM will look like for their community. Communities must have a common vision and leaders who are on the same page.
The goal for Mobile and every community, she believes, is “to develop a community with a common vision of STEM so we can all join our collective talents, energies, and work to reach a goal of STEM success for all students.”