|A CULTURE OF STEM
Imagine a classroom of early childhood students with party whistles tipped with a sticky end. What mischief would they create? Only imitating frog behavior by trying to snatch a paper fly with their sticky tongue! Headstart teachers integrated the exploration of the frog life cycle with discoveries around tadpoles, observing and painting frogs, and testing their webbed limbs on swimming their hands in a bucket of water. Children were immersed in frogs and used the STEM disciplines to dive in.
This was just one of the curriculum projects where teachers challenged students with integrated STEM learning. Through all of last year, STEM was the focus for preschool children in Baker, La Grande, Union, and Harney Headstarts. How did they change their curriculum and culture to embrace STEM in a holistic way? Headstart had some thoughts about this and actions that may give the rest of us important insight on what it takes to transform how we think about a change in school culture concerning STEM curriculum. Methodically, Headstart teachers and leaders engaged in a plan:
Step 1: Commit. Meeting as a community of teachers, they all agreed to commit to a year-long project to incorporate STEM in their curriculum. This meant that they would work on learning, thinking, planning, and teaching through STEM for an entire year. Leadership committed to employing an ECE STEM specialist to provide teacher workshops and paying teachers for their time and materials needed. Commitment by everyone was a critical first step because teachers made this effort their priority.
Step 2: Learn. Teachers gathered for a start-up, day-long workshop to get their feet wet with STEM basics. Sharon DeFrees, a long-time Baker teacher and award winning sustainable rancher (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAHlqyThdQY&feature=youtu.be), provided the workshops based from a Project Wild series: Growing up Wild (See: http://www.projectwild.org/growingupwild.htm ) From there they participated in half-day training sessions, follow-up work, and ongoing conversation with mentors and peers about implementing STEM in the classroom. Learning was engaging, long-term, and applied.
Step 3: Plan and Implement. Teachers implemented the lessons and activities through the year sharing how their classes interacted with the challenges and materials. These experiences provided feedback and adjustment so that in future cycles of teaching and learning improvements might be made. Besides the involved frog unit, teachers also did simple activities to blend STEM in the daily experience with the children. Studying and labeling shapes is an important standard in Pre-K. To emphasize this, teachers had students create pipe cleaner shapes and rehearse their names. They then took their shapes on a nature walk and asked children to use the shape as a filter to see trees, plants and the environment. Amazingly, little eyes were now keenly aware of the preponderance of circles, triangles, rectangles, and squares in their world. Geometry as part of a STEM challenge gave better meaning to their understanding of shapes. Curriculum and planning became holistic, integrated, and employed STEM disciplines in thinking about each topic or area of discovery.
Step 4: Persist. Too often, as educators, we try something, shrug when it doesn’t work exactly the way we had planned or thought, and then try something else the next year. Instead, Headstart persists with this theme and will continue to work on their plan to hone the curriculum to suit the needs of the children. They will continue with STEM and Natural Resources this next year and continue to work on integrating the arts, language arts, and motor activities. Changing the culture of school requires a solid understanding of the purposes of the curriculum, a long view about incremental change, and a dedication and persistence to the task.
Changing the culture of K-12 and STEM takes the same kind of process. We have to commit, we have to be willing to learn and be transformed, and we have to persist. If you would like to know more about this kind of cultural change, talk to Donna Rainboth at firstname.lastname@example.org