In today's competitive world where success is defined by what you know, and by what you're able to do with what you know, the demand for expertise in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has become a national priority. To ensure the U.S. continues to lead the world in technology innovation and provide students with the tools for success, we have increased our investments in STEM education, and are transforming the way STEM is taught in U.S. schools.
Case in point, a team from TARDEC conducted a summer STEM camp in August at Lake Superior State University (LSSU) for middle and high school students, using the latest STEM teaching methodologies, techniques and curriculum.
"We wanted to make sure this was a STEM camp and not just a science camp," remarked Dr. Stephen Priselac, Executive Director at the National Center for the Advancement of STEM Education (nCASE). His organization partners with Department of Defense (DoD) labs and educational centers nationwide to train and support teachers in STEM education.
"The subjects of math and science have always been taught to students in vectors, and it's hard for them to understand how everything fits together," Priselac continued. "For instance, a teacher might write the formulas for the surface and volume of a sphere on the chalkboard and begin lecturing in a traditional math class. In one of our classes, the teacher would hold up a ball and ask the students what they can tell us about it. After a brief discussion in everyday terms about the characteristics of the ball, you're then able to integrate mathematical equations and terminology into the lesson to document or manipulate that data in an understandable way."
Instead of basing an entire lesson on solving a complex formula on the chalkboard, successful STEM teachers integrate elements of science and math together and use the latest digital technology, including computers, the Internet and video to help support the material.
"nCASE does not advocate getting rid of lecturing and teaching from textbooks entirely," Priselac stated, "because these tried-and-true methods got us where we are today. However, teachers need to use multiple teaching approaches and be flexible enough to tailor their lessons in a way that all students can comprehend and learn the material in a meaningful way. It's all about making it clearer, so students can problem solve and innovate, and they can see where they're going to use this science and math to do something that will make a contribution to society," said Priselac.
The DoD works closely with nCASE to pair STEM professionals like TARDEC's Army physicist Dr. Douglas Rose with teachers at the camps so the students can visualize how STEM curriculum relates to real life. Rose explained how he uses a combination of science and math every day to solve complex real-life problems. "Science helps us find the truth about something, and mathematics is the language of science," Rose commented.
Mr. Grayling Mercer, an honors physics and astronomy teacher at Oak Park High School near Detroit, meshed the STEM disciplines together beautifully for camp participants when he supported his science lesson on the planets and solar system with math formulas to help students determine how far each planet was from the sun. Aided by an interesting color slideshow and movie clips off the Internet, Mercer provided students a visual sense of how big the universe really is and how long it would take to explore it traveling in a rocket at the speed of light.
He then brought the lesson to life for the students by having them construct rockets out of empty two-liter bottles, and then launch them outside. "In inner-city schools like we have in Detroit, most of the kids will never see themselves as becoming an engineer or a scientist," said Mercer. "But if you show them what a scientist or an engineer does and they actually enjoyed the project or experiment, they are then able to visualize themselves doing that. If you don't ever see it, how do you know it's even possible for you? This type of STEM education opens up a new world of opportunities to students regardless of race, zip code or socioeconomic status."
Nicole Ames-Powell has taught at Carver STEM Academy in Detroit for four years. Her students walk past abandoned houses every day on their way to school, negotiating their way through and around discarded furniture and trash that litters the sidewalks. According to Ames-Powell, almost the entire student body there was failing when she started, and the situation was so dire that the State of Michigan replaced the entire faculty.
Using the STEM teaching methods she learned at nCASE teacher training in 2010, she has seen steady student classroom improvement, interest and participation. Likewise, she says nearly all her students are passing now, and many say they plan to attend college. One of her favorite class projects, which she taught this summer during the Army's STEM camp at Lake Superior State University (LSSU), was an interactive 'CSI-style' crime scene investigation. She had students act out various crime scenarios while the rest of the class observed and took notes. Afterward she held group discussions where students compared notes and used science and deductive reasoning to eliminate various suspects and solve the crime. "This is one of those class activities where the students don't even realize they're learning science," said Ames-Powell. "It sharpens their ability to observe an event, prioritize information, document findings and use deductive reasoning to solve a specific problem or challenge."
"We've been introducing inquiry- and design-based teaching methods to underserved students in Detroit and the Native American communities located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula with great success," said Greg Chappelle, the Michigan National Defense Education Program (NDEP) STEM coordinator and the nCASE STEM coordinator for Michigan. "However, there's still an alarming shortage of students who pursue STEM careers, and even fewer teachers capable of tailoring their instruction to meet individual student needs and interests in STEM.
One evening during the camp, Chappelle and his team met with LSSU President Dr. Thomas C. Pleger to discuss inquiry- and design-based teaching methods and the need for more qualified STEM educators. To their delight, Pleger was interested in hosting more summer STEM camps at LSSU, and extremely interested in hosting small groups of teachers for advanced STEM training, especially if they were traveling from Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, LSSU has ties to the U.S. Army dating back to 1893 when the Army relocated Fort Brady from the shore of the St. Mary's River, 1.5 miles inland where the university stands today. Soldiers there patrolled the Canadian border and guarded the canal and Soo Locks, until the Army closed the fort in 1944. Fourteen of Fort Brady's historic buildings still stand on the campus today, and LSSU's School of Engineering and Technology provides a perfect setting to teach STEM. "It looks like the Army could be occupying Fort Brady in Sault Ste. Marie once again," quipped Chappelle, "except this time, we're not repelling incursions from the British at our border, or guarding the Soo locks. This time we are partnering with LSSU to develop tomorrow's leaders using STEM innovation."
For information on the STEM Summer Camps Program or Advanced STEM teacher training and certification in the State of Michigan, email Greg Chappelle at: firstname.lastname@example.org.