Hopefully over the next two years I'll be sharing some amazing stories and photos, from what I know is going to be a life-changing experience.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Looking Forward

As I leave this conference, and another few weeks of engaging discussions, I am looking toward September and a class of students in Grade 6/7.  What have I learned (or been reminded of) that will impact them?  What might that look like?

   Encourage everyone to pursue their passion, whatever that it.
o   Boy, girl, other, STEM, art, design, music, food,  LIFE
§  Passion projects
§  Integrated projects and problem solving

·         Keep it real.
o   Tasks should be authentic, and ideas explored
§  Follow tangents, explore student questions and interests, connect back to content (or not)
§  Problem solving, in real-life contexts - focus on application of learned content

·         Ask big questions, have deep discussions.
o   Look at the content from different perspectives, ask critical questions
§  gratitude journals
§  role-playing and writing-in-role
§  pointing out and discussing stereotypes
§  analyzing texts and media

What I find really interesting about this is…
1.      None of this is new to me. 
2.      None of these are actually directly related to STEM education.

What I took from this conference was the idea that diversity is key – whether that be diversity in teams OR diversity in interests and pursuits.  STEM is not going to save the world, we are (or aren’t).  All of us, every day.  Students need to be engaged, and the only way you will ever do that is by providing them an opportunity to explore what makes them curious.

Women and Girls in STEM

A big theme at this year’s STEM Ed conference was Girls and Women in STEM, because that pipeline is leaking way more females than males.  Dr. Elizabeth Croft of UBC, the final keynote speaker of the conference did a fabulous presentation on the next generation of women in STEM.  I enjoyed this presentation because even though she has the studies to back up her claims, she spoke in a very accessible way.  She has the data to support her, but didn’t bog us down with it.

She began by presenting 3 myths that exist about women in STEM and her answers to them.

Myth 1: Boys have better math skills than girls.

They don’t; as a population girls and boys are both good at math.  But beyond that, math ability in boys doesn’t predict their participation in STEM, particularly engineering.  Yes, there are gender differences, but that doesn’t preclude anyone from being successful in STEM.  AND, the skills that many companies are looking for in their engineers are precisely those that are traditionally considered feminine – good communication skills, good team work and rapport, organizational and problem solving skills….

Myth 2:  Girls just aren’t interested.
Dr. Croft believes that it’s not about innate interest, but how STEM has been marketed.   Try this: Google “engineers” and take a look at the images.  Out of the first 10-20 images you see, how many women are there?  And this is an improvement!  Dr. Croft presented a variety of images from past UBC Engineering marketing materials, and it was all boys/men, either in lab coats or hard hats.  What affect does this have on young girls who may have been interested in Engineering?

Myth 3: STEM doesn’t need diversity.
Looking at it from a business perspective – having more girls in STEM means that there is a larger talent pool to draw from, which leads to increased innovation, improved governance, and stronger financial.  Essentially:  diverse team = smarter team

She suggests that the key to getting girls and women in STEM subjects is to make people aware of the context behind STEM – what the real world problems are that are being worked on.  This information isn’t just useful for girls, but for everyone, as parents and teachers have huge influence on kids.  It is also incredibly important for girls to have female role models to look up to, and learn from.  Lastly, just like in real life, the pipeline leaks at transition points – so mentorship programs and community support and network could be useful tools to keep women.

Thomas Meagher, of Owatonna Public Schools in the US looked at students in his district in Grades 4-7 and found that they had positive attitudes towards STEM, but were less positive about having a career in a STEM field.  This research supports Dr. Croft’s points about students not having context and any real idea of what the career opportunities are.  This again comes down to marketing, and I believe, students’ overall lack of exposure to all careers in any detail, even though we ask them to start choosing career and academic paths in high school.

For more discussions on women in STEM see this blog post from Aliens Among Us or this one by Anne Jolly.


Now…as a class (with some help from a question posed in a session by Astrid Steele), we have had a lot of discussion about WHY we want women in STEM in the first place.  I think this is a really important discussion.  Yes, a diverse team will be more successful than a homogenous team, but that’s not really the question being asked.  It comes back to David Blade’s presentation – why do we want ANYONE in STEM at all?  Why is STEM so important to us right now?
It’s not a simple answer, but I believe it comes from a long line of civilizations and societies that were successful – aka able to survive – based on their technological innovations.  Access to clean water, the ability to build buildings and transportation networks, and communication technologies helped people to survive.  And now “technological advancement” has become synonymous with success.  People are only now starting to see the value in the indigenous, ‘old-fashioned’ way of doing things (such as Peter Cole and Pat O’Riley of UBC).  However, the mainstream view is still one of progress from technology.  We expect the future generation to save the world through technology we haven’t worked out yet.  No pressure, right? 
And what about boys?  Yes, it is incredibly important for us to teach girls that they can be whatever they want, but we’re not actually very good at being supportive of our boys to be whomever they want, either.

Croft, E.  (2014, July).  The next generation of women in STEM: Making transformative change.  Keynote presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.

Meagher, T.  (2014, July).  A look at student attitudes and measured performance after a new STEM initiative’s first year.  Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Talking about STEM Education

So STEM Education is great.  Obviously.  We just need how to teach it really well because we need the future generation to be super-STEMers so they can solve the world’s problems.  Right? 

Well, maybe not.  Hidden amongst all of the presentations on how to teach STEM, the debate over whether or not to integrate, the workshops on how to run STEM programs and use various technologies were a few hidden gems that asked us to stop and think for a moment.  IS STEM important?  If so, WHY?  What are the problems with STEM?

David Blades of the University of Victoria teamed up with Matthew Weinstein and Shannon Gleason to present a one-act play that re-frames STEM discourse and considers different possibilities for thinking about STEM.  Firstly, it was really nice to see something other than a powerpoint presentation.  But beyond that, they raised some really interesting questions.  The over-arching question is “What does STEM enable and exclude in school curriculum?”

They suggest that focusing on future technology consumption as the primary reason for including STEM in the curriculum pretty much misses the point.  The current path of STEM Ed only serves corporate interests by misplacing hope that our problems will be solved by future scientists and engineers.  It limits the choices provided to students, promotes national competition to be more techy and really just enable neoliberalism because science is NEVER value-neutral.

Wow, right?

After their presentation we discussed how the presentation was quite one-sided, but it served its purpose of getting us to stop and think.  What is it we want to be teaching the next generation?  They suggested, and I tend to agree, that science education should be about being critical, and asking questions about science, and STEM Ed needs to move beyond content.  Their example of solar-energy lead the discussion to ask if our current ‘solutions’ really are solutions – or do they just allow us to continue to live as we do in a slightly different way.  Does STEM solve the big societal issues?  If so, how?  And if we think the curriculum needs some tweaking to incorporate these bigger issues, how do we make that happen?

Astrid Steele of Nipissing University focused this idea in her presentation and asked these questions – What are students being prepared for?  What are they being inspired for?  STEM in the classroom is fun, but where is the complexity, the ethics, and the big ideas in STEM education?

Possible Moral Frameworks for STEM Ed
- Consequentialism – where you weigh the costs and benefits of a decision
- Deontology – having a set of accepted rules to judge actions by
- Virtue Ethics – this is basically character education which is present in some curriculum already
- Sustainability Ethics – looking at the ethics of being sustainable

She says that STEM needs a moral compass, and there are a few frameworks that we can use in the classroom to help us look at the bigger picture. 

Ontario does have an initiative that involves these bigger issues, called STSE – Science, Technology, Society and the Environment.  I’ve taken a look at it, and it looks good.  At least, it looks better than the currently narrowly-focused curriculum that I’ve been working with in BC.  Perhaps there’s a thing or two in there that I can try out.  But you don’t need a whole curriculum to help you get your students to look at big ideas.  Here’s an example that Astrid gave that I really like.

The usual task:
You’re on a plane that crashes on an island.  You need to build a tower to be able to get the attention of rescuers.  There is an indigenous population present on the island.  What do you do?
How to improve it:
Add one question – how will your presence impact the island?
Something simple like that is good – because we have enough to teach already.

Blades, D., Weinstein, M., Gleason, S.  (2014, July).  Alternative powers: De-framing the STEM discourse.  Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.

Steele, A.  (2014, July).  The tower builders: The need to place ethical considerations at the forefront of STEM and STSE education initiatives.  Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How to Improve STEM Education

To begin with, one needs to know that STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  It is an acronym used in industry and by educators and policy makers, who in recent years have called for initiatives to increase the presence of STEM subjects in public education.
One metaphor that kept coming up is that of the “leaky STEM pipeline”.  Something that looks a little like this:

Source: NCES Digest of Educational Statistics, Science and Engineering Indicators, 2008.

The idea is that of the whole population of students who start out in public school, only a very small percentage end up graduating and entering a STEM field.  Two presentations that I attended had very different views on how STEM subjects should be treated in schools.

Presentation 1: Beyond Subject ‘Silos” – Looking Sideways
In presenting a paper co-written with Frank Banks, David Barlex of Brunel University in Australia notes that in schools, educational focus looks like this: STEM, while in the real world the focus is more like this: STEM.  The first question he posed was: Do we want/need elementary curriculum to match real-life skill needs?  The second question posed, and the topic of their research, was: Should it be S.T.E.M, where each subject is a separate discipline, or STEM, where integration occurs.

The presenter suggested that subjects should NOT be integrated, which is a different perspective than I am used to hearing.  His rationale for this was that when we try to integrate the subjects, science always “wins”. He said that most often technology isn’t taught, it is just used as “palliative care” for difficult topics in science and math.  He also argued that it’s not possible to teach all disciplines in school, and STEM topics (such as the E – Engineering) shouldn’t be afforded special treatment.  He used the example “we don’t teach doctoring in school, so why would we teach engineering?” (Barlex, 2014) to make his point.

In the end though, he didn’t call for keeping these topics completely and totally separate in their own ‘silos’, but instead suggested that teachers look sideways.  It is important to be aware of what is going on in other subjects, but it is most important to be authentic in the tasks that we assign students and not force integration.

Why does Science ‘win’?
            During our discussions, my classmates and I believe that there are a few reasons for this.  Damien suggested that Science and math are core curriculum subjects, and this makes them valued more by school systems.  Kathryn also pointed out that it’s usually the Science teachers who are expected to do the integrating.  I think Kathryn is bang on – particularly at the elementary and middle school level, the subject taken by students is Science, and the teacher is expected to integrate as much as possible.  However, at the end of the day that outcomes that need to be covered come from the Science curriculum, and that is what teachers are trained in (how many elementary and middle school, and even high school science teachers started out as engineers?)  There is also the general belief that technology and engineering are subtopics of Science.  Barlex made a good point by quoting Fullen (1991) - “educational change depends on what teachers do and think – it’s as simple and complex as that”.  Experts theorizing is one thing, but the reality is that the biggest factor in STEM education are the teachers, in the classrooms, who come from a variety of backgrounds, and all have a unique belief about education.
For me the real take home message for teachers is to respect task authenticity.  Don’t force math into a lesson because you can, do it because it makes sense.  I believe part of the problem is the very high number of outcomes we are supposed to have our students meet.  This leaves very little time to do anything interesting, or tangential, or completely un-related to the curriculum.  Instead of keeping our students from having these experiences, we creatively fit the curriculum in, to justify doing it.  I know I am guilty of that.  It’s time to stop, and just be authentic and let the students learn.

Presentation 2: Integrated STEM Education

Stephen Petrina of the University of British Columbia, and Mark Sanders of Virginia Tech presented a symposium argued that the quality of experiences affect students, and integration provides experiences that separated disciplines and courses cannot (Petrina, Sanders, and Volk, 2014).  Integrated STEM education is for all students, K-12, and requires all aspects of the activity to assess each discipline, and be grade appropriate.  Sanders argued that an integrated approach doesn’t replace traditional, subject specific instruction, but there are topics that can be better explored through an integrated framework.  He used the example of asking students to design a paper airplane that remains aloft for the maximum possible time.  This example, he says, is a really good one because it can be used at many different grade levels, and can have each aspect of STEM be presented, discussed, and assessed at grade-level.  This is really key – it’s only true Integrated STEM if each aspect is grade-level appropriate.  He also went on to say that you could further enhance a project by integrating with other subjects (LA, Social Studies).  Sanders did point out that there has not been a lot of research done to quantify the outcome of Integrated STEM education on ‘plugging the leaks’ of the pipeline, although this is a major topic seen around the conference this year. 

How do we make this practical and feasible?  At the primary level we have generalist teachers who don’t all have a background in STEM, and may not feel comfortable creating and guiding the kinds of projects which actually integrate all STEM subjects.  At the high school level, how do we make this kind of large scale departmental coordination work?

Sanders referred to research showing a drop in STEM interest in Grades 3-6 – where is this research from?  In my experience intermediate kids find STEM really interesting, although they may not be thinking about career options yet.

I found this a really interesting presentation to hear after Barlex’s argument to look sideways, but not integrate.  Part of the problem is the T.  Is technology a discipline in and of itself, or is it just a tool?  There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on this in the STEM community, so it seems to come down to the beliefs on the educators at work.  I wonder if the bigger question is – what is technology?  We seem to forget about all of the non-digital tools that we having been using in everyday life for thousands of years now.  

Examples of STEM Initiatives


Barlex, D.  (2014, July).  Beyond the subject silos in STEM – The case for ‘looking sidewasys’ in the secondary school curriculum.  Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.

Petrina, S., Sanders, M., & Volk, K. (2014, July).  Integrative STEM and the education pipeline.  In S. Petrina (Chair), Integrative STEM and the educational pipeline.  Symposium conducted at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC. 

STEM Ed 2014 - The 3rd International Conference on STEM in Education.

STEM in Education is a bi-annual conference meant to provide a chance for educators and researchers from a variety of institutions and industries “to share and discuss their innovative practices and research initiatives that may advance STEM education” (University of British Columbia, 2014).  The 2014 conference was held at UBC with the focus of STEM Education and Our Planet - Making Connections Across Contexts.  I attended 4 days of keynote speeches, paper presentations, symposia, and workshops, and went to a variety of sessions, although I did choose ones that seemed applicable to my practice, or at least interesting.  Following STEM was the PME (Psychology of Math Education) conference.  I would have loved to attend that one as well, but it was quite expensive.  Luckily, I have classmates attending, and have been getting the low-down on some of what they’ve been learning.
Most of the EDCP 509A group at our first lunch time discussion.

Overall I found the STEM Ed conference to be really interesting, but a LOT of information to take in.  I really enjoyed having classmates also attending as we were able to discuss and share during breaks.  There were definite themes within the conference, some expected (such as sustainability) and some less so (such as the huge focus on pre-service teachers).  

The following set of posts will outline what I learned at the conference, as well as questions and thoughts that have come up during discussions.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Zai jian China

So....I haven't been all that good about posting, but since I started this blog when I came to China, it seemed necessary to write a post as I leave.

I originally signed a 2 year contract with Maple Leaf and wasn't sure if I was going to come back for the
second year.  That was 4 years ago.  In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago, but then again it seems like just yesterday.  I spent (almost) a year doing a variety of jobs - ELL support, classroom support, covering mat leaves and sick days, and helping out with whatever I could.  There were quite a few people leaving at the end of the year, so I had quite a few choices for moving into a classroom, and was placed in Grade 4, which is where I spent the past 3 years.  And Grade 4 was most definitely fabulously fantastic!  I had 3 classes of very different kids, but they were all challenging and rewarding.

Those kids, as well as the amazing people I worked with was why I stayed.  I never really embraced China per say, often times the smog, or crowds, or beauracacy, or something would drive me a little nuts.
So as I head back to Canada, I have to say Thank You to every single person at DMLFNS that made these 4 years amazing, and good bye to China, I probably won't see you again.

P.S.  Yes, I had to wait until I was in Canada to load the photos.  ;)

Friday, May 31, 2013

You know you're doing something right when...

Recently two things happened that made me smile...and know that at least some of the things I'm teaching are sticking...

Yesterday was the day of our school-wide field trip to the zoo.  Students were to bring a backpack with water, snacks, etc.  In the morning before classes started, two of my ESL boys were discussing their snacks, as each had brought quite the assortment.  One of them said "let's be like the early explorers in Canada - I'll be the Aboriginals, and you be the Europeans."  Then, without any further explanation, the two of them bartered their way through a snack trade.

Later, after arriving at the zoo, the first stop with my group was the flamingos.  Since we've been discussing habitats and adaptations in Science, I asked them what adaptations they saw in the flamingos.  All of my students had answers - they were shouting over each other, giving me examples, telling me if it was a structural or behavioural adaptation, and how the adaptation aided in survival.  However, the best part was that throughout the rest of the day they continued to do this, even though I never asked about it again!