These days I’m a STEM curriculum writer and advocate, but I’ll confess that each year when Middle Level Education Month rolls around, I feel an extra longing to be back in a science classroom with young adolescents elbowing their way through the door, eager to learn “stuff.” It’s a place where I spent 16 wonderful years of my professional life.

Many of my middle-school students were natural scientists. They loved to explore, invent, build, figure things out and be actively engaged in their learning. While they would tolerate working with a fake scenario (“A space alien has just landed and . . .”), they were most engaged when dealing with problems that real scientists and engineers were working on. Environmental issues were among their favorites; they wanted to make the world a better place.

That’s reason enough to be a STEM advocate! Kids need a place where they can get together to learn how to approach and solve problems they care about. Looking beyond the 3 R’s, in today’s connected world students must become proficient in the 4 C’s: Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration and Communication. Mindy Curless, a Kentucky STEM initiatives consultant, asserts that “Developing these skills is a natural outcome of a STEM curriculum and perhaps the best reason to engage students in these experiences.”

And we need to begin in the middle grades.

Students in flux

When I began teaching, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. It seemed that every two or three years, my latest batch of 12- and 13-year-old students arrived with a whole new mindset and outlook — a different set of interests and skills and a different way of thinking and reacting. If I were going to be successful in helping them learn, I had to continually evolve — to change my way of teaching to meet their learning styles and needs.

As I continued teaching into the 21st century, I noticed another odd thing; in our high-tech, fast-paced and connected world, my students were in a continual state of flux. I had to change faster. I had to develop new teaching skills and beliefs about what constitutes good teaching.

That kind of continual change is a tall order for any middle-level teacher, much less a teacher who is called upon to integrate STEM content and techniques into the curriculum. Continual change means ongoing learning to develop new teaching skills and ideas about what it means to BE a teacher.

STEM teaching practices

Here are some aptitudes and proficiencies that seem to be valuable for STEM teachers (or for any middle-level teacher who wants to be cutting edge).

  1. Transfer control of the learning process to the students. Develop new roles and rules that stress student responsibility. Check out this article for ideas on how to accomplish this. Provide hands-on, experiential learning, then guide from the sidelines while keeping students on target with their direction and purpose. Aim at helping them become self-sufficient learners.
  2. Foster curiosity. Learn the art of asking open-ended questions with plenty of possible answers. Pose problems rather than activities with fixed outcomes. Send students on a search for solutions. Use discrepant events to intrigue students and draw them into the problem. This article suggests six strategies for piquing curiosity so students engage in using critical-thinking skills to solve problems.
  3. Increase collaboration among students. Get yourself comfortable with teamwork. Actively teach teamwork skills and work with students to heighten awareness of their team behaviors and ways of interacting in the class. Here is a link to a student teamwork guide that you may find useful.
  4. Accept failure, both your own and that of your students. It’s a necessary part of learning. Everyone in the STEM classroom should feel safe in taking risks. I tell students that we learn more from what we do wrong than from what we do right, and engineers learn from their mistakes. In fact, failure is a necessary part of learning. If you aren’t comfortable with this idea, you might check out this online commentary.
  5. Accept some drawbacks. STEM education will improve student engagement, critical-thinking skills and workforce skills. But it may also play havoc with the well-ordered lesson plan you wrote and make it more difficult to cover content in a stepwise process. In the STEM classroom, you’ll need to be ready to make some quick shifts in your thinking. You may also need to deviate from your lesson plan depending on the direction the students’ investigations and decisions take them.

Teaching STEM in the fabulous middle grades is an adventure trip with a great destination. Here amid Middle Level Education Month, I must say that I envy my colleagues who are just beginning to make that journey!

Anne Jolly is author of the MiddleWeb blog STEM Imagineering. She began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year. Today, Jolly is a curriculum consultant for Engaging Youth in Engineering, a Mobile-based, NSF-supported project to develop standards-based STEM lessons that are easily integrated into middle-school curricula. Her practical DIY book on professional learning, “Team to Teach,” is published by Learning Forward.

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