With technology playing a huge and growing role in all our lives, it’s unfortunate that many K–12 students are just now being exposed to computer science and STEM education in some parts of our country. Beyond the technical know-how that STEM classes deliver, a well-designed STEM program can also promote curiosity, lifelong growth, and the interpersonal and problem-solving skills that employers need.
When human resource directors in STEM businesses across America are asked what they want to see most in new hires, they never say “mastery of academic standards.” Instead they’re seeking innovative problem solvers who can be self-directed while also working effectively in teams. In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers ranked technical and computer skills below these personality attributes. How can schools prepare students for a future that requires not just knowledge retention, but the ability to identify and solve problems? I would argue that this is the essence of creativity.
We needn’t choose between the “hard” and “soft” skills in STEM education; they should be part of the same package. Being a computer scientist or an engineer requires that you consider the problem and work with a team to create a solution for the end user that will then provide feedback, so the team can iterate to create a possible better solution. The skills involved in this process are referred to as the 4C’s: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. Yet these essential workforce skills often are not measured, tested, or even identified as learning objectives in K–12 STEM classes. I’d like to see teachers make frequent use of a new learning objective: Students will be problem solvers while working in teams.
If solving problems becomes the objective, then what is the main resource that we need? Problems. And in today’s world, problems are not in short supply. I would like to see teachers direct students to such sites as Code.org, Khan Academy, and CS Unplugged for skill acquisition in computer science and engineering, but I don’t want the lesson to end there. For bigger-picture thinking, teachers could turn to the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering, which is designed to give students exposure to global issues while researching how engineers and scientists go about solving problems, as well as several educational sites produced by the United Nations. Such resources can engage students in collaborative processes and be delivered in any learning environment.
With schools going back and forth between in-person and remote learning as COVID-19 cases wax and wane, now seems the perfect time to expand the boundaries of STEM education beyond what the standards require. If science is to mean anything, let’s unleash students on the pressing problems of our era: How can pandemics be prevented? Can the damage of social isolation be reversed? When we take the time to know our students, what they are interested in, and why—and act as facilitators who give them access to real-world problem solving—educators can inspire students to create the future.
Jeanette Simenson-Gurolnick was an instructional innovation coach and teacher in three very different districts over the past 15 years. Last year she taught STEM to 6th–8th graders in a large, diverse, urban/suburban district in Colorado. She joined McREL in June and now works with schools and districts across the country on transforming the use of educational technology to support high-quality learning for all students.