Next Gen Trailblazers: ‘20 to Watch’ emerging leaders embrace adding arts to STEM

Adding the "A" to STEM

While the accomplishments of Leonardo da Vinci, the 15th century Italian painter and inventor, embody the integration of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, it has taken over 400 years for educational institutions to recognize and actively pursue STEAM.

The U.S. National Science Foundation is credited with launching the STEM acronym around 1998 after an interagency meeting on science education when the suggestion was made to move from the older acronym METS to STEM. The STEAM acronym joined the mainstream education lexicon about five years ago after the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) created a compelling case to integrate art and design into the STEM conversation to support workplace innovation and encourage the hiring of art and design students.

Rhode Island’s initiative offers excellent resources and access to a global network of educators, policy makers, and industry leaders who are advancing the STEAM movement.

While it might be easy to write these acronyms off as another education fad, economic projections suggest future career opportunities offer a solid rationale for their continued development. The STEM Jobs: 2017 Update issued by the Office of the Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration predicts that, “employment in STEM occupations is projected to grow by 8.9 percent from 2014 to 2024, compared to 6.4 percent growth for non-STEM occupations.” The recent report shows that “STEM workers command higher wages, earning 29 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts in 2015.”

The diversity of K-12 activities to advance STEM and STEAM is reflected among the accomplishments of several 2017 honorees of the National School Boards Association’s “20 to Watch” recognition program. Established in 2006, the program identifies emerging K-12 leaders who look for innovative ways to use technology to support teaching and learning and who can inspire their peers to join them.

The program has recognized educators in 39 states since its inception and covers K-12 roles from elementary teacher and chief technology officers to superintendents and higher education faculty involved in teacher preparation across every content area.

The growth of STEM and STEAM activities among this year’s honorees is encouraging since the gender gap remains problematic across those professions as documented in the 2015 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index. While the results from a recent European study by Microsoft of 11,500 women between the ages of 11 and 30 across 12 countries pinpoint the loss of interest in STEM fields by girls ages of 11 to 15, many of our “20 to Watch” educators recognize similar behaviors among their American students.

Practical strategies

The creation of a three-school cluster offering a cohesive PreK-12 STEAM experience in Tennessee’s Maury County Public Schools was one factor in superintendent Chris Marczak’s selection as a “20 to Watch” educator. The initiative includes both arts and STEM specialists collaborating to create an arts and engineering curriculum that has students working on forward-thinking projects.

Two Pennsylvania honorees, foreign language instructor Rachelle Dene Poth and teacher and one-to-one facilitator Matthew Henderson are advancing STEAM at the classroom level. Poth, an attorney turned educator, offers What’s nExT?, a course that explores emerging technologies to her junior high students, while Henderson’s STEAM Design course uses technology to tie lesson topics to social studies and science for his fifth- and sixth-grade students.

Sean Wybrant, a career and technical educator in the Colorado Springs School District 11, offers students broad exposure to different career opportunities in STEM through a four-course game programming track, a summer enrichment program in Digital Media Studies, and IB Computer Science. He helped create the district’s STEM Café, which connects students with industry professionals for half-day, on-site experiences or remotely through virtual STEM brown bag lunches. The Microsoft study identified the lack of female role models as a key reason for girls’ lack of interest in STEM. Wybrant’s Teen Chic club targets that problem by connecting middle and high school girls with college STEM majors and female professionals.

Hilltop High School teacher Joseph Alter in the San Francisco Unified School District engages teen mothers in design, construction, engineering, and architecture through the Build SF project to help them make connections to their future lives and jobs.

A different strategy is embraced by Kristina Holzweiss, a school library media specialist in New York’s Bay Shore Union Free School District who has taken her passion for the maker movement from inside her middle school to the larger community through the creation of a nonprofit.

The group’s annual celebration of SLIME, Students of Long Island Maker Expo, offers parents, teachers, museum educators, librarians, and students new opportunities to learn and advocate for STEAM experiences within their community. Among his other duties, Chad Ratliff, director of instructional programs in Virginia’s Albemarle County Public Schools, oversees an impressive portfolio of projects with an emphasis on the maker movement including a National Science Foundation grant in partnership with Indiana University entitled, MAKER: Studying the Role of Failure in Design and Making.

The focus on STEM and STEAM is not only found within brick and mortar schools. Wendy Loewenstein, director of Nebraska’s Omaha Virtual School, has integrated Minecraft, coding, and robotics in her online programs and built community partnerships to develop public awareness about the importance of STEM and STEAM.

Professional learning

Helping educators stay abreast of the rapidly changing trends and tools in technology is a never-ending challenge. The research and design space created by William Bass, innovation coordinator for instructional technology, information, and library media in Missouri’s Parkway School District, is known as the Innovation Playground and offers educators space in which to learn. The Playground has supported the development of augmented reality projects and the spread of maker spaces throughout district libraries.

Andrew Smith, chief strategy officer for North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury Schools, embraces a similar approach with his Center for Innovation where teachers can experiment with new solutions and engage in research and development efforts to evaluate product effectiveness.

The Region 14 Education Service Center in Abilene, Texas, covers 12,000 square miles and includes 42 small rural districts served by digital innovation consultant Christy Cate. Cate’s STEAM Camp provides professional development for teachers and students to work autonomously on the same projects, as if in competition, to fully understand the reality of student-centered learning and help create a culture shift to expand 21st century learning.

Elementary principal Lynmara Colón in Virginia’s Prince William County Public Schools has kept a sharp focus on professional development in her building to ensure the 1,000 devices and innovative tools like drones are being used effectively to transform learning. Brad Gustafson, principal in Minnesota’s Wayzata School District and author of Renegade Leadership, shares a similar belief with Colón and Cate that it is the shift in instructional approaches, not all the 3D printers, coding, or drones that make the difference in student learning.

During a visit to the Lockheed Martin facility in Littleton, Colorado, during the 2017 NSBA annual conference, participants heard about the future of space exploration and the possibility of putting a person on Mars by the mid-2030’s. The 1957 launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, and the ensuing race to reach the Moon, sparked hundreds of innovations among the Baby Boom generation.

The focus on STEM and STEAM content will not only help prepare today’s students for their own space odyssey, but also provide them with the necessary skills to deal with our increasingly complex world here on Earth.

Written by Ann Lee Flynn, NSBA’s director of education technology: First appeared in American School Board Journal (ASBJ) June 2017 issue.


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