Ensuring the T and E in the STEM Classroom and Engineering Pathway
Mark Lobes, Victor J. Andrew High School, Tinley Park, Illinois
Educators, by nature and development, are territorial. We believe in home rule, my lab, my department, my things . . . don’t touch. We are products of traditional thinking. Our schools often divide us into core, career path, and college path. We take that mantle and run with it, not looking at the other runners, just looking ahead.
STEM is an often misunderstood tagline, misinterpreted even by people with the best intentions. STEM is inherently collaborative but still sometimes causes divisions. Our colleagues in other departments have heard of STEM, but they probably do not understand it as much as we would hope or like, just as most probably do not understand the acronym CTE. This realization surfaced when I was told a story regarding an educator who had worked in a school where they proudly proclaimed English as the “E” in STEM. Why? They didn’t have an engineering lab, so they figured English would work. We shake our heads at that, but it’s not surprising. It takes understanding to ensure the “T” and “E” in STEM.
A solid STEM understanding requires a few individuals in a school to recognize the connections between the disciplines represented by all four letters in the STEM acronym. With the Engineering Concepts course at Andrew High School, we promote STEM understanding by ensuring that teachers in Applied Technology, Science, and Math talk to each other, bouncing ideas or just seeing what others are doing. Even though Engineering Concepts is an Applied Technology elective course, it connects to students in AP Physics C or AP Calculus. In so doing, the course establishes connections between not only academic students but also AP/Honors students seeking to take an elective out of the AP/Honors path for the first time. We’ve observed over the past many years that students in the Engineering Concepts course have never taken an Applied Technology course before, or any CTE course. Their first dive into our area is directly connected to their possible college and career paths.
The Engineering Concepts course focuses on the basics of the engineering field. Students sample labs from different engineering specialties in a team-focused, decision-making, and problem-solving manner. Concurrently, the students research and present on their own college and career goals. Students use their science and math backgrounds to develop college-level lab write-ups using the Design Loop, often referring to classes they have taken or are taking.
To apply these skills outside the classroom, the students are encouraged to compete at a state-level team engineering competition held every fall at Illinois State University. The students may also develop a team for the Illinois SkillsUSA state competition, focusing on engineering design. Our students have done well in these competitions, and they recognize the value of the class in preparing them for the real-world applications explored in competition settings.
We also have developed field trips that students in AP Physics C and Engineering Concepts attend together. Every year we are granted an in-depth, behind-the-scenes tour of Fermi Lab National Accelerator in Batavia, Illinois, and every two years the students attend and interact with exhibitors at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, the largest show of its kind in the world.
Through these activities the students are involved in a true STEM education, in which they explore all four areas of the acronym. They see and experience the connections, and they demonstrate their understanding of those connections during their time with us. As they move on to college and careers, their feedback enables us to continually revise and update the curriculum. That further connection, between our students’ experiences at our school and their experiences in college and the workplace, is another essential piece of making the program a success. This connection can also lead to industry site and college visits.
If you seek to develop this type of course, talk to your colleagues, gather feedback from your students, and seek connections with industry and professional associations. See who is out there and is willing to provide resources. Contact your local community college and the four-year colleges and universities your students may attend. What has worked? What needs additional fine tuning? Whatever you develop from the ground up will be the most successful, enduring, and long lasting—thus ensuring the “T” and “E” in your STEM classroom.
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