Here's how STEM learning can help improve classroom and school culture and engagement.

Changing culture through interdisciplinary STEM learning

Learn how this school focused on STEM learning across the board to engage students and shed light on real-world STEM connections

As content-driven curricula are rapidly giving way to programming aimed at developing core competencies, educators are incorporating standards–such as those developed by ISTE–to reframe their programs to emphasize digital citizenship, innovative design, computational thinking and global connectedness to prepare students for careers that do not yet exist.

However, the process of implementing deep change may take three to five years, because it impacts the way schools do business, as well as fundamental school culture.

Related content: How STEM learning invigorates classrooms

At West Island College (WIC), a university preparatory school for Grades 7-12 in Calgary, Alberta, we are leveraging the expertise of STEM Learning Lab to lead this shift within our school. Our aim is to emphasize computational thinking and computer science skills, ensure math performance is consistent, and incorporate more real-world, interdisciplinary learning.

In 2017, the first year of our partnership, consulting instructors came into the classroom to lead instruction while our in-house teachers acted as aides. In the second year, our teachers took the lead, with a consulting instructor remaining on-site to provide support and professional development, an arrangement which will continue into this coming year. This approach has already proven to be very successful in helping us shift our pedagogy and practice.

A shift toward computational thinking

When we began our collaboration, our primary objective was to develop a number of interdisciplinary projects starting in our junior school that emphasize computational thinking in the classroom.

1. Coding
The first project we launched revolved around coding using Scratch 3.0, a visual drop-and-drag programming language that inspires creativity and computational thinking. Teachers targeted two conceptually challenging topics in particular: the subtraction of integers with models, and the melting and freezing point of various substances and their respective states of matter.  Through this project, students investigated how temperature fluctuations impact a substance’s state of matter and coded their themed environment to change through the random generation of math expressions. This process was not only highly engaging for students, but also helped them internalize the concepts in a meaningful way — soon after, we noted an improvement in student assessment results on some of the more challenging concept questions.

2. Journey 2050
We then turned our attention to Journey 2050, an environmental science unit for 7th graders that we upgraded to include interdisciplinary connections through STEM-based activities, hands-on inquiry, data analyses, and student-centered problem-solving. While the unit emphasizes science topics such as ecosystem interactions and plants for nutrients, we also incorporated connections to social studies, mathematics, technology, and language arts. At the conclusion of the unit, students gained confidence in public speaking by presenting their proposals to members of the WIC community. Additionally, this unit utilizes themes from Journey 2050, a curriculum-based school program that provides resources and virtual simulations to encourage student exploration of world food sustainability.

3. Freshwater and Saltwater Systems
Our third project, Freshwater and Saltwater Systems for 8th graders, connected the study of freshwater and saltwater systems to analyses comparing Earth and Martian terrain. The students are provided images, data sets, and Google Earth maps of our planet and Mars to analyze biological and geological indicators potentially associated with underground water and ice. They also evaluate 10 Martian locations and ultimately propose and present the best one for future human habitation.

Additional STEM learning enrichment

We have also leveraged our ongoing partnership with EdgeMakers to develop a number of other experiences to further develop the capacities of our staff and students. For example, our teachers offered a two-week Python coding workshop for 100 of our 9th-grade students, as well as a senior high computer science course.

Meanwhile, we designed a MathLab program to support our junior high students with gaps in their understanding of key mathematical concepts. Working alongside our Student Services team, the consulting instructors also helped us develop a new final project for 7th and 8th graders — the Fitness Tracker Project. Using wearable technology, students monitored their working, recovery, and resting heart rates. The data collected from the fitness trackers will be brought to math class for real-world data analysis.

We have also developed a number of after-school programs, boot camps, and summer camp workshops to expose students to a variety of additional STEM experiences such as Raspberry Pi, Drones, Arduino, Minecraft, and Web Development with HTML/CSS. These programs not only offer learning enrichment but also bring outside students into our building and continue to amplify our faculty’s professional development.

Expanding across grade levels

In keeping with WIC’s mission to create innovators, our goal is to achieve vertical integration as well as build sustainability for this type of interdisciplinary programming, with the end goal of shifting the culture across our entire junior high section. To that end, we will create four project-based activities for junior high students next year while expanding this type of inquiry to the 9th grade.

As the field of education continues to evolve, it is imperative that the pedagogy in our building continues to change with it. Already, we’re witnessing a significant shift in our school culture as educators across multiple grade levels have pivoted from content-focused curricula toward the development of new and innovative STEM learning experiences, and, importantly, sharing their expertise with others.

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