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How to make elementary teachers stronger in STEM

It’s no secret elementary teachers are often weakest in STEM. Targeted PD can help

stem-teachersDespite renewed interest, calls for funding, and presidential appeals, true STEM integration is missing from a large number of classrooms across the country. And to hear Patty Born-Selly tell it that’s especially true at the elementary level.

“Most elementary teachers when they are placed in the classroom often just don’t feel comfortable teaching STEM subjects,” said Born-Selly, who is the executive director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education, an organization embedded within Minnesota’s St. Catherine’s University (colloquially known as St. Kate’s).

“They might avoid it or they might teach the bare minimum or they might go on a field trip and think that was their science lesson,” she continued. “But what we’ve found across the board is that teachers really want to be more comfortable with this material and the subject matter so they feel as comfortable with it as with, say, reading.”

Why the disconnect? Limited exposure to teaching STEM during college and pre-service training leads many elementary teachers to soft peddle those subjects in their classrooms, she said. Students, in turn, feel detached from science and math, which may dissuade them from pursuing STEM subjects at higher levels later on.

That’s what Born-Selly’s organization, the NCSEE, hopes to prevent.

Next page: How PD can help


The NCSEE began as a way to strengthen the hard science training among students of the school’s college of education. Later, St. Kate’s added support staff for an on-site STEM professional development program, which offers everything from daylong workshops to intensive week-long courses with periodic follow-ups for K-12 schools and districts across the country.

The goal of this targeted STEM-focused PD is to plug a gap that currently exists in elementary education—to help better integrate STEM into the school day, rather than allocating a chunk of time for science and another for math. “Given that you have one teacher in one classroom in elementary schools, it makes sense to be thinking about things in a holistic, integrated way,” Born-Selly said.

“Research shows that children make decisions very early on in their elementary lives about whether or not they like science or math and that can be influenced by their teacher’s likes and dislikes,” said Vicky Yatzus, head of school at the Independence School, a tuition-based academy in Delaware.

To help break that cycle, Yatzus’ school decided to partner with St. Kate’s, after connecting at a science education conference, for a comprehensive PD regimen they knew would take teachers out of their comfort zones and, hopefully, invest them with more confidence in their classrooms.

Eliminating the fear factor

St. Kate’s teaches courses on a variety of STEM-related subjects tailored specifically for K-8, including standby STEM subjects, such as chemistry and biology, and fun, kid-friendly fare, such as citizen science and learning outdoors. But Independence knew exactly where it wanted to start: The subject its teachers knew the least about.

“Most—virtually all—elementary school teachers have had no training in engineering. That’s almost unheard of until very recently, and it’s still pretty unusual,” said Bernadette Gilmore, who serves as director of academics and curriculum at Independence. “It’s a place where we had a void of knowledge.”

Next page: How teachers learned engineering concepts


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?


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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