By Joshua Sigmund
According to the scorecard, it feels like the allegorical New Jersey Education League has been having a number of rough seasons.
Salary caps have gone down and team managers’ futures are tied to players’ often-unrealistic scores; many school clubs are working with outdated equipment and venues; the Common Core playbook, while well intentioned, was a bit of a disaster.
But thanks to their love of the game, the educators have been hitting the fields – of science, technology, engineering and math, that is – to create better players for now and the future.
To briefly divert the metaphor, if these individual fields were superheroes, STEM is The Avengers. Consider Iron Man: A movie about a scientist who used technology to engineer a suit that helped him save the world.
Fantastical blockbusters like that – as well as more grounded yet equally entertaining shows like Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, “science rock stars” like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and movies like The Martian – have been not so subtly presenting kids with the “cool side” of STEM.
“Any type of exposure kids can have toward science is beneficial,” declares NASA/JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) Solar System Ambassador Laura Jean Checki. “(Matt Damon’s character in The Martian) had a dream to go to a new frontier and made it to Mars. Then something happened and he was still able to manage. It’s children seeing that something unachievable is achievable.”
On top of inspiring students to follow educational paths that will one day save our planet and/or take us to others, the core principles needed to succeed in STEM fields have astounding impact on students’ personal growth – a common theme in space movies.
“Within the space community there’s that spirit of cooperation – there’s that barrier that comes down,” Checki emphasizes. “And when you go into space, you’re pushing the envelope of technology as well: Cell phones that came from the Apollo program, disposable diapers, the scratch-free lenses in my glasses, slow-burning threads in my clothing and on and on in medical and aeronautics fields.”
Perhaps the excitement drawn from the infinity of space (and the vastness of the ocean, the variety of Earth’s ecosystems, the anticipation of new technology…) is what continues to drive schools to send their classes on STEM field trips to Liberty Science Center in Jersey City and the Buehler Challenger & Science Center in Paramus, where Checki also serves as a NASA Master Educator. Schools such as Franklin Lakes’ High Mountain Road School, whose fifth-grade class visited Buehler on Jan. 28 – the 30th anniversary of the fateful Challenger explosion.
“We are currently revising our science curriculum,” explained High Mountain Road Principal Jaclyn Bajzath, who set in motion a curriculum committee that is looking at resources to bolster teachers’ STEM lessons.
Interrupted by her students counting down “3…2…1…” and then cheering as their egg parachutes either opened to help a controlled descent or didn’t to provide a good start to an omelet, Bajzath emphasized how new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a positive step forward toward a dynamic upgrade in STEM education.
And it hasn’t come fast enough: The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – one of the biggest cross-national tests that measures reading ability, math and science literacy among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries – ranked the U.S. 35th out of 64 countries in math and 27th in science.
As a result, U.S. Presidents have asked for education to go full STEM ahead. President Clinton successfully raised math SAT scores to a 30-year high by the end of his second term. President Obama, at the Fifth Annual White House Science Fair in March 2015, stated, “We’ve got to celebrate the winners of our science fairs as much as we celebrate the winners of athletic competitions. And it’s not enough just to talk about STEM. Part of what’s important is to recognize that what you do in math and engineering and science has a purpose to it: How do we clean up our environment? How do we solve crippling diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s? When we give students the inspiration not just that (STEAM fields – including the Arts) are inherently interesting, but there’s actual problems to solve, it turns out that young people rise to the challenge.”
In the interest of inspiring the little boy who will create the next game-changing piece of hi-tech, or the young girl whose new rocket propulsion system will lead to a more efficient rescue the next hypothetically-stranded Matt Damon from Mars, preparing students for tomorrow’s STEM-focused careers not only sets them up for success, but also will be “one small step” toward bringing back the sense of wonder Americans felt when setting the first footprints on the Moon.
With STEM, as Checki enlightens, “the unimaginable can become the imagined.”
Give me an “S”
Bajzath admits she cringes whenever she walks into a classroom and sees an open science textbook. In agreement, High Mountain Road Science Teacher Denise Liedel ensures her classroom is a cringe-free zone.
“Science class, if not education as a whole, is a lot more hands on and that’s something that holds students’ interests,” she relates.
It was Liedel’s fifth-graders who were attempting to softly land those eggs at Buehler – the culminating field trip of a space curriculum that “intrigues her students as if they were coming into a toy store,” she describes. “They get so involved and they have this love of it and that makes my job really easy.”
While excitement often translates to success, Liedel has dealt with students that have struggled with science – sometimes just as much the concept of the scientific process as the material itself.
“We talk about labs and developing experiments and I tell students ‘I don’t want you to feel like you’re ever wrong in science,’ but they have a hard time with that in the beginning,” she notes. “They come into school and think ‘my answers are either right or wrong.’ I’m trying to get them to get over that. You make an educated guess and if your result is different than what you predicted – I never say ‘wrong’ – then did you learn something? That’s what we want.”
Give me a “T”
Maybe because she has two children at home who are constantly connected via their various iWhatevers, Jersey City Public Schools 6-12 Science Supervisor Manisha Shah feels like she is a victim of technology. But like any inspired STEM educator, Shah found a way to harness those wireless wonders for the betterment of her district’s students.
“My goal is to use digital technology to infuse into and enhance learning,” she describes.
The development of new technology serves not only as the result of STEM efforts, but also a means to further learning and creations. With this in mind, Shah equipped all middle and high schools in the district with resources they could use for stimulation: iPads, interactive whiteboards, etc. But more than what you have that matters is what you do with it.
“Technology is often not being utilized to its potential,” Shah explains. “It is used now for researching, but not just to regurgitate facts. It’s more to see if anyone else has researched a topic, or to explore how someone might solve a problem and benefit society. We use technology as a medium to think outside the box, like by using video chat to talk to people in different industries, or by doing blogging and podcasting in the classroom.”
Shah wants her teachers to be equipped when NGSS roles out in September, and not overwhelmed “like they were with Common Core,” she explains. To that end, Shah spent a lot of time working with Liberty Science Center’s Teacher Professional Development Programs. Last summer, 30 Jersey City district middle and high school educators attended a weeklong NGSS Teacher Institute at LSC. By week’s end, a resounding “oh we can do this” became palpable. Shah adds that some teachers were familiar with integrating NGSS.
“Take the concept of ‘energy’ for example – It can be taught in chemistry, biology or physics,” she expounds. “It’s under the same umbrella, but there’s different ways of presenting it and it’s about combining skills. In fact, some teachers realized they were doing it all along.”
On an annual basis, LSC, works with more than 12,000 teachers with programs for those teaching Pre-K through Grade 12. Programs range in duration from three hours to multi-week institutes.
“Everything we’re doing with teachers is related to the new standards,” offers Anthony Bisulca, Associate Director of Teacher Programs at LSC, which offers a 10-session series that gives teachers a strong overview that will help them enter the classroom equipped with what they need to be successful in teaching NGSS. “It is going to be quite a departure from what happens in most science classrooms in the state.”
Bisulca notes that while hands-on lessons will become the norm rather than the exception, the real changes you’ll see in the ideal Next Gen science classroom will be watching students learning by investigating questions, problem solving and critical thinking – “Not like the recipe fashion where you mix A and B and get C in the end,” he explains. “Students will have to use math and even the arts and work toward engineering practices. Most people see the pieces of STEM as different things. These new standards are unifying them.”
Give me an “E” (and an “A”)
On Jan. 12, at the College of St. Elizabeth, 26 middle and high school science teachers joined six volunteer engineers to brainstorm how to create exciting and relevant lessons for students that incorporate NGSS. Engineering this summit were Kathy Ernst, a science teacher at Robert R. Lazar Middle School in Montville and former president of the New Jersey Science Teachers Association, and her husband Michael, a professional engineer and former union chapter president of the NJ Professional Engineer’s Society.
“Science teachers are asked to teach engineering even though 99 percent of them have never had formal engineering training,” Kathy explained.
Teachers showed up with lesson plans and brainstormed ideas of how to incorporate engineers. Then engineers arrived and everybody was split into groups by category (chemistry, physics, life sciences, etc.).
“The teachers said ‘here’s our lesson plans;’ engineers said ‘how about trying this?’” Kathy noted, while recalling a similar strategy that led to a lesson she developed with her husband 15 years ago called “From lab bench to toy store: The story of Oobleck.”
In the lesson, students have to come up with not only a use for Oobleck (a non-Newtonian fluid that has properties of both liquids and solids, and whose name comes from the Dr. Seuss book Bartholomew and the Oobleck), but also an advertisement for it.
“I would start off reading the Dr. Seuss story, then students had to do the science of making a project, use language for the ad, and art to design a package for the Oobleck. This is exactly what STEAM is.”
Similarly, art teachers like High Mountain Road’s Janet Cash emphasize the “A” in STEAM while bolstering its co-Avengers and looking to the future. Consider concept cars –perfect near-sci-fi examples of what results from the intersection of engineering inspiration and artistic expression.
“I tell my students to take a current problem and see how it’s going to be in 20 years,” she describes. “Want to make a flying car? Design it. And if you want to do STEAM well, you need to be working in 3D, taking things apart and putting things together and seeing how things fit together. If you can get kids to think about 360 degrees at an early age, they are going to be way better off to solve problems in the world.”
Give me an “M”
Last – but certainly not least – math is routed so deeply in basic education because it is the foundation upon which the rest of STEAM lies. From chemistry bonding equations to architecture blueprint schematics to the programming of an app and even the relationship of notes in music, a solid grasp of math is the skill that enables success. That’s why “I can’t” is not a phrase that is allowed in High Mountain Road Math Teacher Robin Smolenski’s class.
“Math is not really two-plus-two-equals four; that’s an equation,” Smolenski defines. “Math is a way of reasoning; a way of problem solving. And there’s nothing in students’ lives they can do without using math. From figuring out discounts while shopping to hockey when a player is skating down the ice and has to calculate at what angle do I have to bank that shot? How hard should I swing my stick? Math is everywhere, and we’re all mathematicians.”
Yet many kids struggle with math, and have in the past been led to believe that some people are “just not great at math.”
“Everybody can do math; it’s just about getting kids to connect with it, and showing them they can be successful in it,” Bajzath announces. “Build math confidence and the rest follows.”
What does that spell?
So for those in the heat of the game like Bajzath, the ultimate goal will be when she walks into a classroom and won’t be able to tell if students are studying science or math or arts or reading because it’s all integrated and feeds off each other.
“There won’t be ‘math teachers’ or ‘science’ teachers,” she envisions. “Rather there will be a teacher who can teach an entire unit that incorporates everything.”
So as you jog out onto the combined fields of learning, just keep chanting: Go STEAM Go…
“I think we’ll get there,” Bajzath ponders. “That’s our goal.”