By Lydia Withrow
With report after report touting the American economy’s need for STEM workers, school districts across the country have rushed to roll out STEM and STEAM initiatives. As is often the case in education these days, though, specific subject knowledge is less important than broader skills such as digital literacy, problem-solving, and social skills.
At Horace Mann Middle School, we have what’s called Basic Skills class. In this class, each teacher chooses a career-focused performance task from the hundreds of options offered by Defined STEM. They spend three weeks focused on a cross-curricular, holistic project that not only tests students’ cognitive ability but also teaches them life skills and allows for hands-on career exploration. When students complete the task, they rotate and start a new project with a new teacher. In 18 weeks, students complete six in-depth projects.
As an English teacher, I’m constantly trying to think of ways to incorporate STEM skills like problem-solving, formulas, and tech into my word-filled classroom. For example, I love CSI and the detailed processes that go into solving a crime, so I created a Crime Scene Investigator lesson. I thought, “What is the best way to give my students hands-on experience when they obviously can’t go to a real crime scene?” Soon, the stairway of our school turned into a life-size crime scene complete with caution tape, splattered fake blood, and a lone shoe next to a body outlined with spray paint. I’ll never forget my student’s faces when they walked into the elaborate scene.
Using graph paper, they had to draw the scene to scale, placing each blood splatter and piece of evidence in the correct area. With the help of Defined STEM, each group of students became experts in areas including bite-mark analysis, lifting fingerprints using a fingerprint kit from the local police department, and collecting DNA samples. Each specialist group then presented their findings to the class so every student was able to learn different aspects of analyzing a crime scene. The class prepared its evidence into a full crime report as if it was going to be analyzed in court. To solve the crime as a team, they used skills from all subjects, including collaborative problem-solving, making precise measurements, creative writing, and presenting their research and findings to the class.
The Basic Skills rotation allows students to explore new careers they may have never known about. For example, when we started the crime scene lesson, students had no idea solving a crime involved so many people, from investigators to local police officers to the FBI to the BCA to forensic scientists and ballistics specialists. In their minds, everyone was a cop. By actually acting out each part of the scene, students were able to envision themselves as adults working in a career. Because of the lesson, they can truly say they have as close to a hands-on experience as they can get (as an eighth-grader.)
While we don’t want our children growing up too fast (that’s the mom in me talking) we do want to expose them to as many opportunities as possible so they’re able to choose the path that fits them best. We also want students to be thinking about their future far before they’re seniors in high school.
Editors note: this is an excerpt from an article published in The Learning Counsel. Click here for original article.