Imagine a middle school student dribbling a basketball while a second student is filming the series of bounces. A third eighth-grader has graph paper, while a fourth is developing an equation on a dry erase board. Welcome to a typical Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) exercise.
This physics activity is one example of how children learn in the Dunham School’s Innovation Lab or the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge’s Maker Spaces.
Both independent schools educate students from PreK to 12th grade. The implementation of STEM begins with project-based learning at the earliest level of education. The thought is that building blocks in PreK lead to success throughout a student’s academic journey.
A common misconception about STEM is the acronym itself. In 2001, the introduction of the science-based curriculum started to seep into the conversation. By 2009, the new approach to education became a mainstream concept for the classroom.
“Our kids don’t learn the way we did," says Jennifer, a local parent of a high school student. “We were handed math facts and given the test by Friday. I watched my son in second and third grade use his LEGOs and the living room floor to learn math.”
But, Jennifer admits that the changes were not easy. “I was learning with my son. It is not about memorizing anymore; it is about doing. Now, I am the one who asks to help with his engineering projects,” she explains.
The other worry about STEM is the lack of humanities. But, at some local private schools, they strive for balanced, integrated learning. The cross-curriculum focus weaves art with building and concepts with writing. It continues to stack the building blocks of learning in a seemingly poetic way.
More than Math
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math are necessary given the shift in professional fields. The global digital economy is the reason the evolution in education happened. But, STEM is only an acronym.
The basis is for students to enjoy the world around them and to stay forever curious. The primary tenets of STEM’s objectives in independent schools are communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and global citizenship.
Group work and presentations are part of every classroom, from art to science. Helping one another learn creates a peer friendly environment. But, not every student is comfortable in social settings. Dana, the mother of a fifth grader, expresses, “Middle school is a difficult time for students. My daughter’s social anxiety was always a concern of mine as projects got bigger and harder. But, it seems that every semester, she comes out of her shell a little more. She’s made friends through group work, and it has changed her attitude towards social situations completely.”
Not every story is a success, but the focus on the individual student doesn't waver. Regardless of what some believe, conformity is not part of STEM. Everyone learns differently, excels differently, and sees the world through different eyes. The curriculum allows every child’s academic journey to be a unique one.
Creativeness is a fostered trait. The Dunham School offers equal parts with their high school electives. Where there is an Intro to Engineering class, there is also Creative Writing. No one size fits all approach exists.
Static grades are how people are accustomed to gauging academic success. But, with the slow elimination of “bubble tests” or a mixed approach, parents sometimes struggle measuring their child’s progression.
Episcopal School of Baton Rouge features Maker Spaces, a lab-like environment that encourages independent projects. They also are renovating a building to work as a Quest Center. The Lower School and Upper School will utilize the space to watch their learning come alive.
The Dunham School also has Innovation Labs for students to learn and apply their skills in coding, building, designing, and engineering. The process of rebuilding and redesigning is encouraged in the labs.
What happens in the Learning Spaces is not kept a secret, or merely used as a grading exercise. The students share their work with the public.
Episcopal School of Baton Rouge hosts events for parents. LAUNCH is a popular day-long event for Upper School students. Students present their projects, talk about their research, and exhibit their talent to peers, parents, and industry partners. At the Dunham School, parents attend Innovations Nights (PreK) or STEM nights (MS), so they can view and understand their child’s progress.
In both independent schools, industry partnerships are essential for both the school and the company. Engagement beyond a school’s walls opens up opportunities and creates a broader community of learning and understanding.
LSU, Shell, and Exxon are a few companies that champion STEM, offer up future role models, and provide their expertise. In turn, schools educate their students to one day not only take over corporations, but also the world.