New Blog: STEM by Design


[Editor’s note: In November 2013, Anne renamed her blog STEM by Design]

Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year during her years as a middle grades science teacher. Today she works with teacher teams across the Southeast to help them develop their action research skills and take control of their own professional learning. Her practical how-to book Team to Teach: A Facilitator’s Guide to Professional Learning Teams is published by Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council).

For the past several years, Anne has also been a consultant for a Mobile AL-based, NSF-supported project to develop standards-based STEM activities that are easily integrated into middle school curricula. We’ve asked Anne (who we interviewed in June 2012) to become a regular blogger at MiddleWeb, and one important focus will be to engage readers in conversations about STEM subjects.

As teachers involved with the STEM movement know, the acronym covers Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics. To highlight the potential creative energy bound up in this combination of subjects, Anne has suggested the title STEM Imagineering for her blog. Here’s her first post and her invitation for you to join in some back and forth conversation. Follow all of Anne’s posts here.

1 stem_design_logoLet’s Talk about STEM!

by Anne Jolly

I’m staring blankly at page 1 of the lesson plan I just wrote. It’s my stare that’s blank – not the page.

The page is crammed with line after line of lesson procedures for a middle school STEM lesson. I wrote those procedures (along with the requisite goals, objectives, materials, preparation, etc.). Then I turned optimistically to the fine-tuning process. That’s when my eyes glazed over.

This is my fourth year of writing STEM curriculum for middle school, so you’d think I’d eventually get the hang of it. But it’s the same story each time I work with a STEM module, or even a single STEM lesson. Each day’s lesson is limited to 45 minutes. I always overwrite. Today I have at least enough information written for a full 90 minutes. What to cut?

And WHY am I doing this, anyway? I should be happily crocheting, or whatever retired people do. However, I’m not retired. In fact, I’ve already flunked retirement twice. I’m always on a mission. And when the STEM bug bit, I found a powerful new mission. Here’s a real opportunity to bring kids some lessons that actually integrate subject areas, bring teachers from math and science together to work with the lesson material, and give the students a real purpose for learning. That’s too good to pass up!

What STEM is all about

I’ll tell you my understanding of STEM, since it’s rapidly becoming one of those terms that people define to meet their own needs within their fields. Here’s your common definition from the April 11, 2012 NSTA Reports:

STEM education is an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.

If you got lost somewhere in that 55-word sentence, then just think about this. Our students have to enter the workforce with an advanced level of technical knowledge and problem-solving skills; and they have to be able to keep up with the spiraling needs of a world market. That’s why we need STEM curriculum. That’s why we must combine math and science (and other subjects, too) in ways that make sense to students and help them solve problems.

Now, how are we going to do that? That’s something I hope we can think about and work through together. I’ll tell you what I think and you tell me what you think. Let’s bubble up some new ideas and get down to business!

And about those lesson plans that don’t want to be squeezed into 45 classroom minutes? Let’s talk about writing lessons and curriculum, too. I’d love to hear examples from your own practice. How are you managing to squeeze in the essential content (and the all-important hands-on learning) in your science, math, engineering and technology-oriented lessons? Maybe we can help each other. I need you!

If you’re interested in STEM, please comment here on Anne’s post or write to Anne directly if you prefer. With your permission, she’ll share some of your thoughts in future blog posts as one more way to encourage some real conversation!

Anne Jolly

Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year during her long career as a middle grades science teacher. From 2007-2014 Anne was part of an NSF-funded team that developed middle grades STEM curriculum modules and teacher PD. In 2020-2021 Anne teamed with Flight Works Alabama to develop a workforce-friendly middle school curriculum and is now working on an elementary version. Her book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 is published by Routledge/EOE in partnership with MiddleWeb.

17 Responses

  1. To clarify, the above quote attributed to the April 2012 issue of NSTA Reports appears in that issue’s Commentary, “STEM: Defying a Simple Definition,” by Jonathan Gerlach. The quote he includes comes from Tsupros, N., R. Kohler, and J. Hallinen, 2009. STEM education: A project to identify the missing components, Intermediate Unit 1 and Carnegie Mellon, Pennsylvania.

    • Anne Jolly says:

      Correct, Debra! And Jonathan goes on to conclude with a thoughtful and accurate sentence: “I think it is truly impossible to define STEM because it means so much for so many different groups of people. Whether it is researchers, science and mathematics teachers, the aerospace industry, or the construction industry, they all have one thing in common: It is about moving forward, solving problems, learning, and pushing innovation to the next level.” That about sums it up – it’s easy to see why he’s an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator.

  2. Dear Anne,

    I’m so excited that you’ve started this blog….so many of us out here are just waiting to hear from someone who has really done it. So to have your voice and insights will be pure delight.

    I also loved the fact that your blog is about creating a 2-way dialog and finding other people who want to talk through how to make this really work in the classroom. Right on!!!!! It’s not very often that someone actually wants to talk to teachers about what they’re doing…usually they just want to tell us what to do!!!! Big difference.

    You asked….”How are you managing to squeeze in the essential content (and the all-important hands-on learning) in your science, math, engineering and technology-oriented lessons?” Boy isn’t that the $1,000,000 question. For me, when I was in the science classroom it was much clearer and even easier. Now that I’m in the math classroom, unless I have a willing science teacher to collaborate with or who is wanting to co-teach something that is STEMy, it’s much harder. I haven’t given up. But I will need help. That’s my first big hope.

    I read this defintion and think….oh boy, that’s the ideal, perfect world. I so wish I worked in a place like that. But interdisciplinary is tougher than most people think. If that’s the only way to do STEM then I think the developers of this are going to miss golden opportunities to get their toe in the door. So I’m hoping you’ll really help us think about this question…..”What if you’re the math teacher who is having to work in isolation from the science teachers? Are STEM lessons still a possibility? Or are these lessons and this idea only possible in a school where the different content areas are willing to collaborate?” I totally realize that it is much more ideal to cross-team this kind of instruction, but I’ll bet a nickel that there are thousands and thousands of teachers who may have to go it alone. The STEM world sort of counts them out.

    I think that’s a big mistake. Why? Because there are lots of math or science teachers who would do this and then be able to show their colleagues that it is a worthwhile and beneficial thing to do. If I have to go it alone the first year, and then everyone thinks….”Oh that was cool. I want to do that the next time around.”…..wouldn’t that be wonderful!!!

    I hope I’ve given you a challenge. It should be an adventure and thanks for taking on this huge task.

  3. Paula Egelson says:

    Paula from SREB (formerly at SERVE) here. You may want to look at the Math Design Collaborative work that that Gates Foundation has funded. It supports CCSS and fits nicely with what you are doing with STEM. Arkansas is a demonstration state for us in MDC, and they have done quite well in implementing the MDC process in middle school and high schools.

    • Anne Jolly says:

      Thanks, Paula! That’s good information to have. We are tying the curriculum tightly to CCSS, but I wasn’t familiar with the Math Design Collaborative. On my way to check it out!

  4. Anne Jolly says:

    Thanks for your enthusiasm, Marsha! I am really glad you brought up the issue of “going it alone.” It’s tough to do that.That’s why I work with a team of folks. I generally focus on writing the science and another writer focuses on math. However, before we start writing, the entire team of six folks working with the STEM project get together. We hash out the objectives that both math and science will have to address in order to be in sync with the course of study and pacing guide, and draft an initial flow for the module. However, having said (written?) that, it is possible for math teachers (and science teachers) to conduct, and even write, good STEM lessons. More about that sooner than later.

  5. Lydia Lynch says:

    So proud to say this is my wonderful cousin, Anne. Wishing your endeavors every blessed success! As a side note, my Emily enjoys science and has won both her school and district science fairs for the last 2 years! A tribute to the love of science!

  6. Anne Jolly says:

    Great news, Lydia . . . and science is the big “S” in the STEM process! Any Ms and Ts out there? Not to mention, E’s . . .

  7. Anne, you bring up so many important points. I’ll just focus on one. As a STEM curriculum developer (who has the honor of working with Anne, by the way), I think it is important for us not only to define what we are doing, but futher define why we are doing it.

    Anne, you mention a very important issue – workforce development. Let’s add to that: We also need STEM-literate citizens, even if their work is in the arts or humanities or other non STEM-fields. STEM-competent people are empowered to make personal and community decisions. We all need to be adept at problem-solving, trouble-shooting, and adding to our technical knowledge and bringing it to bear on our personal and community activities and decisions.

    Many of our personal, social and political decisions have a “STEM” dimension now; we need to be able to interface with these fields with flexibility and intelligence. This may not be a ground-breaking thought, but I think we need to remember how critical it is to find the time to “do” education right, and that includes doing STEM with enough time to let students grow.

    • Anne Jolly says:

      Right on, Carolyn!

      Aside here: In case you readers haven’t figured it out . . . Carolyn and I are both on a STEM writing team. We work with four or five other writers to blend science, math, and technology and create engineering modules for middle schoolers. In fact Carolyn and another writer from the Boston area are flying in next week to meet three Alabama writers and a Florida writer. We’ll go at it tooth and toenail for about four days. Then we’ll leave with a skeleton of what we propose doing and start doing feasibility studies to see if our ideas actually work.

      One thing we actually have not talked about in our team is the need for STEM-literate citizens in all areas. Do you think we need to focus on that? You’ll be sure to hear from me on this issue next week! I think you are SO right, and language arts and social studies have some real contributions to make. Y’know – I think that making explicit connections to other subjects is important.

      In the event that there are teachers in other subject areas reading this, do you want to chime in here? I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about that issue.

  8. Ernie Rambo says:

    –so excited to see this dialogue on STEM that you’ve started! I’m all trained and ready to start with the Gateway to Technology program that our school is implementing this year, but it’s going to be one heck of an uphill climb! Right now, the battle that we’re facing is that our science department finds the GTT program to be of high quality and worthy of implementation, but we’re wondering why is STEM being introduced only through our science classes? We’d like to see more teachers like Marsha — seeking ways to incorporate STEM into their math classes, but in our district, STEM is purely the responsibility of the science department — which, like every other subject, already has a full load of standards and benchmarks to plough through each year!

    Are we on the boundary of a new way of organizing our classrooms? Much like the term, “language arts” incorporates reading, English, and writing classes, could STEM represent a collection of science and math that utilize technology to teach engineering skills? At the middle school level, I’d like to see a STEM block in every student’s schedule: a 2 hour time slot where one teacher (or a team of teachers) use technology to introduce students to math and science problems designed to guide students toward thinking from an engineering point of view. Sigh….and I haven’t a clue if any teachers would want to take on that task. The math and science teachers who I work with are passionate about their specific subjects, but not very anxious to teach across the curriculum. It’s a huge leap to take for those who were taught to focus on just one subject.

    If trying to implement our entire STEM curriculum through science classes doesn’t do me in this year, I hope to create a more concrete image of what my STEM block would be like in a school. I’m looking forward to the continuing conversation about STEM on your blog!

  9. Anne Jolly says:

    What a neat idea, Ernie! I can just see combining science, math, and technology and engineeing to create a STEM curriculum in the way the language arts curriculum is a combination of subjects. That’s really outsid-the-box thinking, but it makes so much sense.

    Students can’t do the kind of engineering probem-solving that must be done without using math. Science teachers may or may not know how to teach the needed math to students, so it’s unfortuante that math teachers aren’t involved in this initiative. The folks making that decision may equate science experiments with engineering, but the difference between the two is significant. I touch on that a bit in my next blog, which should be up shortly.

    I hope to hear from a lot of other folks as to what they think STEM is and how they think it can be effectively done. One thing I am wondering . . . are robotics a way of implementing STEM curricula?
    Thanks for taking part in the conversation, Ernie – maybe we can figure something out!

  10. Violeta says:

    Hi everyone,

    I am lucky enough to be at the forefront of the effort to design model curriculum for my state. I am in the process of recruiting wonderful teachers to embark on this journey together. As the person leading the way, what advice do you have for us as the STEM Team to be productive with our time. I anticipate 10 teachers representing primary grades an 10 representing secondary. Each group of teachers will convene on different dates. I will have one other facilitator in the room.

    Where do I start?? It just seems like such a daunting task, but so necessary!

    Thanks in advance for your insight!

    • Anne Jolly says:

      You are lucky, indeed, Violeta! Hopefully several folks will chime in on this. To start off the conversation I’d suggest a couple of ideas:
      1. Be sure that all teachers are on the same page with regard to what STEM curriculum is – otherwise you’re likely to wind up with curricula that looks a lot like a science project.
      2. Let teachers work together to decide how math and science will coordinate on a given challenge.You may want the challenge to incorporate objectives that teachers would normally be teaching during the quarter the challenge will be taught.
      3. Be sure to give teachers a process to follow if they are doing the writing. What engineering design process will they be using? How will they incorporate it into their lessons, and what format will they follow. If you want a sample of one we use then let me know and I’ll send you a copy.
      4. If teachers are going to be working together in groups, I’d suggest groups of 3 to 4 at the most. Even teams this small can set norms to make their time more productive. Just ask each team member to share with each other the behaviors they value in other team members. Then ask them to agree on a list of desired behaviors and have it with them at every meeting.

      Okay – there’s a list of a few ideas to start with. I imagine others out there have some other great thoughts on how to make STEM curriculum development exciting and productive. Keep us informed!

  1. 08/15/2012

    […] A MiddleWeb Blog Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year during her…  […]

  2. 08/20/2012

    […] A MiddleWeb Blog to engage conversation about STEM, what it's all about, and what it currently looks like "out there."  […]

  3. 10/14/2013

    […] Commission) and the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science Education K-12.  Anne blogs about STEM […]

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