STEM Educator Symposium: Day 1

This is the first of three guest posts from Chris Ryan, physics and philosophy teacher from Riverview High School in Riverview, New Brunswick. Chris is reporting from the STEM Educator Symposium in Fort Collins, Colorado. Enjoy.

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I was invited to the #preses14 conference to experience something different while connecting with other like-minded teachers. Day one did not disappoint.

There were three things I was hoping to be able to do at the conference, and I had a taste of each one by the end of the first day. I wanted to hear about the importance of STEM education. Even though I believe it, as a Physics teacher, I wanted to see the research and the engagement. The second thing that I wanted to know was that what I do in my class and in my school is evolving along the same track as educational progress in the world. The third thing I wanted to see was students in action.

Morning One

“Teachers kicking our butts and not letting us give up is what makes a difference.”

Dr. Ernie Chavez, from Colorado State University, gave an excellent talk to kick off the event. From this talk I took away two main ideas.

The first idea that caught my attention involved lots of interesting data about the need for STEM education and the changing workforce. The U.S. will have a demand for 1,000,000 STEM careers in the next ten years. Where are we going to find this workforce? We can either import these skilled positions from China, India, or other countries (which might have a net result of exporting the income), or these positions can be filled from homegrown options.

The other powerful question that was answered was the issue around women entering STEM careers. Dr. Chavez asserted that one of the contributing factors to women’s’ resistance to STEM is that they cannot see the connections to the social impact that they feel passionate about. This makes me wonder if we need to do a better job in our classes of showing how professions like engineering can be empowering in the realm of social impact.

The other major piece was the idea that mindsets of students define learning ability, especially in minority populations. Research has shown that if a perfectly normal student believes they have a genetic impairment to learning a particular subject then their results will show impaired results. If I believe I can change it, I can.

In my class I strive to motivate students for the right reasons. It seems to me that Preston Middle School has created a culture that motivates students and teachers to build a culture of collaboration, high engagement, and educational efficacy.

What I see with this elegant model is a clear vision of striving for something great, a foundation of values adopted by the entire staff, and a rough pathway that guides the community from the values to the vision.


Afternoon One

In the afternoon we were able to see a class in action. Preston has converted their library into a media center. This is a dynamic environment large enough to hold a functional class and have all conference participants intermix with the students to ask questions and overhear conversations.

This was an inspiring experience to see the interactions in student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and student-to-conference participant scenarios. I don’t know that this culture developed because of the STEM focus in the school or if the culture allowed STEM to flourish. I suspect it was synchronous.

The power of this conference is to see an effective culture in action. In this afternoon block the student interactions were clearly based on trust and risk-taking. It was clear that this needs to be embedded in the STEM instructional practice. Any career in STEM is based on a learning and doing process that involves taking chances and expecting NOT to succeed on the first attempt. These students are comfortable asking some hard questions that have no clear answers and work diligently to create high quality solutions.

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Check back for other installments by Chris Ryan, and follow him on Twitter here. For more information on the STEM Educator Symposium, go here.

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