The Importance of High-Quality STEM Education in the Early Grades
Equitable STEM education in elementary and middle school can level the learning field and close STEM achievement gaps.
By Anne Jolly
Back in the days before STEM made a formal entrance into the school curriculum, I sometimes struggled to make lessons relevant for my widely diverse student population. I had just started my 8th-grade earth science class one morning when the door opened and in rolled a robot. Not a fancy robot, but a robot nonetheless. It was about 2 feet high, made of waxed cardboard, aluminum foil, a blinking red light, and a tangle of wiring.
Marcus followed close behind, eagerly guiding his creation with a homemade remote control. Needless to say, the whirling, blinking device captured the undivided attention of the whole class. To them, Marcus the “Invisible Student” suddenly became Marcus the “Wunderkind.”
I made a quick decision to pause my riveting lesson on the components of the lithosphere
Marcus made the robot out of materials he was able to find around his grandmother’s house – string, cardboard, foil, wheels, etc. He had dismantled several electrical devices to get the wiring he needed. (His grandmother had not been pleased about that.) With a little research and a lot of creativity, voila! Marcus the Inventor made his school debut.
Several days later Marcus came to class displaying an electronic locking device for a doorknob that would keep anyone from entering his room without the code. Parts of the device looked familiar: waxed cardboard, foil, wiring, and a red blinking light. Marcus had been forced to scavenge his robot for the materials to create his locking device.
Marcus was an exceptional science student. He won first place in the science fair. Imagine my surprise when his other teachers came to me and remarked, “I’m glad Marcus is a good science student. He’s flunking my course.” (We teachers worked in isolation in those days. Teacher collaboration was barely a glimmer on the horizon.)
Like so many of the kids in my classes, Marcus came from a low-income home. His grandmother worked at two low-wage jobs to buy food and keep a roof over their heads. He had entered school without the learning experiences and background knowledge of many of his peers, and he’d never experienced much success in traditional classrooms.
In spite of that, he was creative, intensely curious problem-solver with a logical, scientific bent. With the proper teaching and learning experiences, Marcus would be an ideal contributor and innovator in the 21st-century workforce.
Marcus is why I’m so passionate about STEM today. For students such as Marcus, a true STEM program, powered by a project-based learning (PBL) process, would have been a godsend.
How does STEM help kids?
The jobs of tomorrow are in the STEM field, and innovative, critical thinkers are in high demand. Yet the supply of available jobs continues to exceed the number of qualified STEM workers to fill them.
STEM fields need skilled professionals and it’s up to K-12 schools to provide the foundation for that workforce. All students need access to high-quality STEM learning opportunities, and students living in low-income areas may actually benefit the most from participating in STEM courses.
4 ways STEM can level the playing field
A strong middle school STEM curriculum could have provided a level classroom playing field for Marcus and other students in our school in at least four ways:
- STEM students must become problem solvers. Students from low-income families often have life experiences which prepare them to recognize or anticipate problems, come up with solutions, create and test ideas, and see if these ideas work. When they participate in STEM projects these middle-schoolers are often prepared to contribute even more than other students to the actual STEM process. (See this article on criteria for authentic STEM programs for a short description of the process.)
- No student comes to the table with a full set of STEM skills. For example, the hands-on nature of STEM requires students to find ways of successfully working together. Most of the students I taught were deficient in this skill; they all came in with little experience in real teamwork and collaboration. So students from all circumstances of life are more or less on equal footing in some STEM areas as they begin their STEM experiences.
- STEM focuses on showing what you can do with your mind and hands. As such, it’s relatively free of requirements that you have “insider” knowledge related to class or culture. The increased level of success that students from low-income families gain from active learning and hands-on STEM experiences can build confidence and self-esteem.
- The PBL process is used for guiding STEM learning. PBL leads students to master core academic content and to think differently about themselves as learners and leaders. This dynamic learning approach lays a foundation for students to take more challenging STEM coursework in high school and to seriously consider a technical or professional STEM future.
How can we provide equitable STEM education?
I have a sense of urgency about the need for our middle schools to provide successful STEM programs. This free-for-download publication from the National Academies Press lays out some clear pathways schools and districts can follow to build successful STEM programs. It also identifies some barriers to equal access to high-quality STEM learning opportunities – things we can do something about such as disparities in teacher expectations, and access to adequate laboratory facilities, resources
I don’t know what happened to Marcus after 8th grade. I understand he went to California to live with his mother. I’m hoping he’s now living in Silicon Valley surrounded by other entrepreneurs. I do know that his example and his potential has made me a determined advocate for STEM opportunities beginning in the early grades.
About the Author:
Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.