By Julie Gonzales

WPCSD STEM Coach

What is STEM and what exactly does a STEM coach do?  These are two questions I have had to find answers for myself as the STEM coach at White Pine High School and honestly, I am learning more about these two questions every day.  STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics but it has taken on so much more meaning for me over the last seven months.  I now realize that STEM ideologies can be implemented into any classroom.  It doesn’t mean that students only learn these four core areas – it means giving students the skills they need for life after high school using practices that any teacher can incorporate.

We want students to be critical thinkers, to be technologically literate, to be able to communicate both orally and in written format, and to be skilled collaborators.  We want students to be confronted with a problem and know they can solve that issue in different ways but yet still arrive at a solution.  A STEM approach in every classroom will help students become those autonomous young adults our society needs.

So why is STEM so important to the state of Nevada?  The number of STEM related careers is on the rise in Nevada.  But yet, many of these jobs will go unfilled because Nevada’s workforce is not STEM ready or 21st Century Skills ready.   After the housing, gaming, and tourism industries crashed, state leaders concentrated on drawing high-tech companies to Nevada in an effort to diversify the state’s economy, and it has worked.

Companies like Tesla have moved into Nevada and are creating jobs.  Many of the jobs that will exist by 2024 have yet to be created.  So how can STEM help?

The STEM best practices are research-based and have proved to be effective for students to acquire the skills needed for the 21st century. The best practices that are currently being used at WPHS include inquiry based learning, student-centered learning climates, authentic assessment, addressing problems with real world applications, and actively engaging students in their learning.  The more these best practices are used in our classrooms, the better prepared students will be for the workplace when they graduate.

The skills promoted with these best practices include communication skills (both oral and written), teamwork, problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, flexibility/adaptability, collaboration, and initiative.  These skills are correlated to the skills employers are looking for when they hire people.  So where do I fit into the scheme of things as a STEM coach?

I started my STEM coaching experience observing teachers to get a feel for the atmosphere of each of the classes I visited.  But I have visited more than just the math, science and technology classes.  I am also observing Welding, Auto Technology & Diesel Mechanics, History, English, PE, Government, French, Spanish, and Culinary Arts.  STEM reaches into the other school disciplines because teachers have opened their doors to me.   I have been lucky enough to have colleagues who have been willing to jump into the deep waters and learn beside me.  We started the school year looking for more ways to incorporate student engagement activities to get students more involved in their own learning.  Then we moved onto the need for authentic assessment in the classroom.  Not every student can show their learning on a test or quiz so how can teachers use other ways of finding out what students know?

Some teachers are using student presentations to find out these answers.  Another teacher had students who made items with their own hands to show what they were learning – one student welded a machine gun and explained to the class how ineffective the weapon was because it was not very portable for war.  Two girls made a stew commonly eaten by the troops during the war because it was nutritious and cost effective.  The rest of the class who tasted the stew commented that it was pretty tasty even if it didn’t have any meat.

Another student baked a cake and then transformed it to show how and why trenches were used to fight in the war.  That day students walked out of class with more information (and memories) about the fighting during World War 1 and how hard it was on the troops.

I wonder how much they would remember if the teacher would have just lectured them on the same information?

Currently I am helping teachers incorporate STEM practices on an individual basis.  I have taken the “student-centered” learning climate of best practices and altered it to fit teachers.

Research has shown when students have a choice about what and how they are learning, that choice will increase student engagement and allow students to take more ownership of their learning.  So I have tweaked that approach with teachers and am no longer taking a “one-size fits all approach” with teachers.  Each teacher chooses what STEM practice or skill they would like to incorporate into their classroom.  My job is to help each teacher implement those changes.  I have become a researcher of information on fake news, a sounding board for “here’s what I am thinking – help me to see the STEM connections”, a teacher of Google Forms so students can sign up for their topic, an “alterer” of activities to make it more STEM based, an observer of student progress in the classroom, or whatever a teacher needs in order to support what they are doing in the classroom.  So what changes am I seeing with this new teacher approach?

One teacher has set up a unit on matrices in which the student will be the “deliverer” of information.  Students were allowed to choose which concept of matrices they wanted to teach to the class and then with other students who have chosen the same concept, they will present their learning to the class to “teach” the lesson.  The reason behind this unit was to get students to realize that when they are expected to learn something, a student doesn’t always need a teacher to learn the concept.  Critical thinking, research, and collaboration skills can allow them to learn new material without needing a teacher to explain everything step by step.  Our students can be capable of so much learning; they have to realize their own abilities and potential.

The days of the teacher being the “dispenser of knowledge” are numbered!  The teacher is becoming a “guide on the side” and helping students learn what they are interested in.  With all of the hand held devices and smart phones that students possess, shouldn’t education change with technology and take advantage of it?

Teachers who use the STEM best practices in their classrooms will help to increase student abilities in the areas of critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication and creativity.   We just need students to see the sky is the limit when it comes to their abilities and potential.