How to make elementary teachers stronger in STEM

In that regard, Independence is far from alone. Minnesota recently added new engineering concepts to its state standards, Born-Selly said, and she’s seen a general surge of interest in related courses across the board. “There’s been a lot of interest among educators on wanting to know, ‘How do I teach engineering? Is it just looking at bridges or is it more than that, and why is it more than that?’” she said. “Engineering seems so clearly to lend itself to hands-on activities and experiments, and building and trying again and reworking.”

Independence began with a weeklong crash course in teaching engineering to elementary school students, taught by an engineer and an education professor from St. Kate’s. Teachers learned about engineering concepts in general and participated in mock lessons that mirrored what their students would be doing.

“I think it took away the fear factor,” said Gilmore, who adds that some teachers may have been intimidated by the idea of having to attend engineering training. “But the thing about engineering is you’re problem-solving. You’re trying to design a solution for some type of problem. And failure is going to happen. They talked about failure not being failure but just your first prototype.”

Following the weeklong training, the school followed up with five more coaching sessions given periodically throughout the year. In those, teachers began deconstructing their knowledge and designing new lessons that fit seamlessly with their curriculum. “As we got into it, and as teachers began grabbing hold of it and designing lessons, that’s when we really got very specific about what we were looking for,” Gilmore said. “If we had ideas, they helped us improve them and hone-in on quality lessons.”

A logical sequence

Closer to home for St. Kate’s, Stillwater Area Public Schools, a district serving about 9,000 students outside St. Paul, also had the idea to beef up its elementary science curriculum, but, ever mindful of tight budgets, it wasn’t on the table. Then, a local business generously offered to subsidize teacher training relating to science. Denise Cote, the district’s curriculum coordinator, jumped at the chance and immediately gathered a cohort of 20 elementary science teachers who would complete not one but three different courses (in biology, chemistry, and engineering) over the course of a year, taking some workshops over the summer and others on weekends. At the end of the third course, teachers received an elementary STEM certification from St. Kate’s.

“We don’t do a lot with chemistry, which we should, or biology, and at the time we hadn’t done a whole lot of engineering at all,” she said. “We picked where we wanted to grow.”

Next page: Did the schools see results?


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