How to make elementary teachers stronger in STEM

If Stillwater teachers felt intimidated, though, they at least seemed up to the challenge. “It was really easy to fill the spots,” Cote said.

That isn’t to say teachers didn’t have their share of concerns. There was the natural fear of teaching engineering and some questioned how topics most people recall from high school would scale all the way down to kindergarten. Much of that was addressed throughout the courses, Cote said, as teachers learned tips and practicalities, such as holding their hands out in front of them to demonstrate a two-foot span, which could be passed on to students during lessons.

Having an education expert co-teach the lessons certainly helped, she said, as did a series of sessions held after each course where teachers unpacked what they had learned and wrote either a unit or a handful of lessons. “Then, as a large group we talked about it, so that there was a logical sequence and so that students are learning and building on what they’ve learned year-to-year,” she said.

Later, those lessons were compiled into grade-level binders, which were presented to the entire district faculty. “The teachers from each of the grade levels that were in the STEM cohort would show the other teachers, ‘This is what we developed, this is why we did it, here’s how you can incorporate it into the science you’re already doing.’ That’s how we rolled it out to the rest of the staff.”

Shift in perceptions

As part of the grant Independence received for the training, data was collected and analyzed on student and teacher attitudes toward engineering. “Basically, after one year, there was dramatic change and shift in the teachers’ perceptions—just in feeling much more comfortable and much more knowledgeable to teach classes that contained engineering pieces,” Yatzus said. “The kids, I would say we didn’t see as much change in them yet. I think that might be something that takes longer to see, but certainly we’ve seen change in faculty perceptions.”

Teaching practice, too, has changed, Yatzus said. “They’re taking a math concept that could be typically in a textbook or on board and then saying ‘OK, how else could we solve this problem by using things around us and getting kids actively involved?’ And we know that our students learn so much better when there’s that hands-on active involvement.”

Since the training, Cote’s teachers have also expressed more confidence in the way they teach STEM. (“I’m definitely teaching science differently, with more thought as to the process of teaching and not the product,” one teacher wrote on a feedback form). Cote has also received another small grant from the same local business to purchase tubs of supplies for each school site, so teachers can replicate the activities from the training and lessons in the binders. Overall, she said, it’s breathed new life into the curriculum on the whole.

“I think a big thing that’s changed for a lot of teachers is really seeing the tie-in that we don’t have to teach these different content areas in silos,” Cote said. “Integrating different things into lessons and making it more like real life for kids is motivating for them, and it’s a very efficient and effective way to teach.”

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