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The History of Stem (science, Technology, Engineering and Math)

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Concrete walls and cinder blocks line a 2,000-square-foot room in the math and science building at Franklin Road Academy. Three years ago, it was used as a storage closet, but today, it’s home to 3D printers, laser cutters, two advanced drones, a virtual reality system, a full woodshop, a robotics arena with lego-like blocks resembling a preschooler’s colorful playpen, and two student-built robots, each of which has made it to the VEX Robotic World Championships.

This is Franklin Road Academy’s Innovation Lab, a collaborative work space that’s home to three classes — design thinking, innovation and robotics — as well as after school opportunities to foster student interest in and prowess of the technology as it relates to solving real-world problems. “It is about the skill set, but it’s also about having our students think differently,” says Leah Davis Glenn, director of communications at Franklin Road Academy. The lab is also open to MNPS students through a Summer Innovation Institute. “It’s not just about creating things because you can, but having a purpose behind it and a reason behind it.”

This is STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) based curriculum in the 21st Century. What began years ago to thoroughly increase the in-depth understanding of math and science as it relates to the tech world, STEM is still facing a need for growth. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic and Statistics Administration, over the past decade, employment in STEM occupations grew 24.4 percent in comparison to a 4-percent growth in non-STEM related careers. However, scores for future generations aren’t adding up. The United States ranked 38 of 71 countries in math and 24 in science in a recent PISA ranking. And the ACT, which scores more than 2 million high school graduates per year, says that only 21 percent of students in 2017 met the STEM Benchmark, which represents the level of readiness students need to have a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in first-year college STEM classes.

In an ideal world, the science, technology, engineering and math paths relate to the outside world, use context-based problem solving and move away from strictly segmented curriculum. And with that, engagement and grades would improve. But in recent years, the curriculum is seeing a bit of a STEM shift.

Where Franklin Road Academy (and many schools across the country) are evolving the initial STEM thinking is with their understanding that liberal arts, language arts, humanities or design thinking are critical to successful innovation today. It’s even resulted in a new acronym — STEAM. The added A (arts) means that students are learning the same scientific concepts, but with more relative context and through the problem-based learning methods typical in the creative process. Instead of simply teaching art, it’s being applied in the context of STEM for a deeper learning experience.

“I think we never want to lose sight of teaching people how to think, how to be thoughtful, how to be humane, how to have a sense of history and perspective,” says Brad Gioia, headmaster at Montgomery Bell Academy. “Losing that might be a much greater danger in an era that is so fast and in a time when there is such an incredible amount of information that people need to sift through.”

Over the past decade, in addition to strong math and science learning, Montgomery Bell has implemented robotics and astronomy programs, an entrepreneurial class with Hume-Fogg and Harpeth Hall; they’ve taken part in the ACE Mentor Program, which connects architecture, construction and engineering professions with students; and built an observatory on Long Mountain in McMinnville, Tenn., with one of the largest telescopes in the south east.

In education, the stakes are often higher (and the access out of reach) for many. And the STEM field lacks diversity. According to the National Science Foundation, 84 percent of working professionals in the science and engineering fields are white or Asian males. But some companies are working to swing the pendulum. Nationally, Verizon has committed $400 million to offer under-resourced students free technology, free internet access and hands-on learning experiences. Locally, during a three-week summer STEM camp at Fisk University, 100 local minority male middle school students got to experience the Verizon Innovative Learning program first hand, with intensive courses in design and product development, mentorship opportunities for both technical and soft skills, coursework in virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, robotics, electronics and more. According to Verizon, the Nashville-area students will return to the campus monthly for STEM education courses and individual mentoring with undergraduate and graduate Fisk students.

With the estimated size of the STEM workforce at more than 8.5 million men and women in 2018 (and tech giants like Amazon, Apple and Facebook drawing attention to job creation), there’s a calling for educational offerings to also adapt. As potential innovators, some students might not lack the creativity or critical thinking needed to be an engineer or app developer, but for some, arts and humanities can be used to offer greater access to STEM for different types of learners.

Dr. Jennifer Barry, an 18-year Metro Nashville Public Schools veteran, was hired in April as the new Director of STEAM for MNPS as they continue transforming the district’s elementary and middle schools. At Stratford STEM Magnet High School, where she was previously the Academic Principal, Barry learned how to work with teachers to transform their instruction into STEAM themes and work with partnerships to bring in the real-world influences so students could understand the “why.”

“The goal at the end of it is to eliminate the “Well, why am I learning this? What’s the purpose?” Dr. Barry says. “Through STEAM, students are really engaged in a project-based learning environment where they’re looking at real-world applications — what does this mean to me? How can this be used to solve a problem?

During the 2017-18 school year, MNPS completely redesigned the curriculum in 18 middle schools across the district to create teaching and learning environments that use STEAM as an access point to four elements — critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. With 9,585 students in those 18 schools, MNPS says that teachers engaged in approximately 88,000 hours of professional development training as of April 2018. In addition, Stratford STEM Magnet High School and Rose Park Magnet Middle School both completed a rigorous accreditation process to become the only two MNPS schools (and one of 138 in the nation) to earn the STEM accreditation.

During the 2018-19 year, Barry says they’ll work with the 18 Phase 1 schools to further develop their plans based on strengths, needs and industry partnerships. One goal is to have all 8th grade students take a coding class. Due to budget cuts, Phase 2 schools will use the upcoming year as a planning stage.

As Nashville area schools adapt, add STEAM programs or initiatives, succeed in robotics competitions or restructure curriculum, Gioia’s belief in the values and mission of STEM is paralleled with the vision and perspective of humanities and connection, what he believes makes for better scientists, doctors, web developers or engineers. “We have an incredible amount of tech at our fingertips, worlds of information, but it’s very obvious that the more we are connected in a lot of ways the less we are connected to one another. If the people who are creating this technology are not keenly aware of what it can do perhaps in a negative way or perhaps how it might help people better their understanding and care for themselves and the world, I think things can get chaotic.”

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