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“iSTEM” Report Integrates Learning

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A new report from the National Academy of Engineering supports an integrated approach to STEM education that combine classrooms, learning strategies, and projects. Corbis/AP Images

A new National Academy of Engineering report explores the potential benefits and challenges of integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning in K-12 classrooms.

March 25, 2014—Finding ways to interest students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from a young age—and retaining that interest once their professional training begins—is a task that occupies professional organizations and schools alike. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) this month released STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research, a report that adds to this body of knowledge. The report explores the benefits and challenges of offering “iSTEM” learning. While the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have typically been akin to silos of learning—science and math getting the bulk of the attention in K-12 schools—an integrated approach seeks to combine classrooms, learning strategies, and projects.

“At the most basic level, integrated STEM combines two or more of the STEM subjects in a way that encourages K‐12 students to recognize the connections between these subjects,” said Linda M. Abriola, Ph.D., a member of the NAE committee on integrated STEM education and the dean of the Tufts University School of Engineering. Abriola, who wrote in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online, is also a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering and in the department of chemical and biological engineering at Tufts.

“Some of the literature we reviewed suggests that experiencing STEM subjects in a more integrated way can both improve learning in individual STEM disciplines and increase student interest and motivation,” Abriola said. “Learning in a more integrated way is also more similar to what STEM professionals do in the real world—in research, design, and project management.

Within the report “the committee chose not to propose a strict definition of integrated STEM education, in part because this is such a new and evolving area [and] integration can occur in so many different ways and at so many different scales,” Abriola said. “Instead, we identified a number of features common to existing approaches to integration.” These included goals and outcomes for students and educators, as well as a variety of programs’ characteristics of implementation—such as problem-based learning—and integration.

The goals the committee identified as being appropriate, or in some cases inherent, in integrated STEM initiatives are for students to develop STEM literacy, interest and engagement, and workforce readiness, as well as 21st-century competencies. The goals for educators are to increase their STEM and pedagogical content knowledge.

The committee also offered 10 recommendations within the report. These covered the design, implementation, and assessment of integrated STEM programs, as well as further research into the field.

For stakeholders involved in researching, designing, and implementing integrated STEM learning, the report called for a common language between the various groups involved and ongoing, iterative education improvement efforts.

For designers of integrated STEM programs, the report indicated the need for clear goals and outcomes, explicit connections between subjects, and proper training of educators. The report also notes that it is of utmost importance to maintain the learning goals and learning progressions of individual subjects so that students and educators’ efforts are not undermined by integration.

Appropriate assessment methods of integrated STEM programs need to be developed by assessment experts, the report noted.

Future research needs to specifically examine the various methods of STEM integration that exist in formal, after-school, and informal settings, according to the report. Additionally, longitudinal studies are needed that explore students’ interest, identity, diversity, and the equity of such programs. The report noted that such studies must clearly identify their outcomes.
The NAE committee on integrated STEM education drew its members from a variety of fields and stakeholder positions. Among its members was high school teacher Michael Town, a faculty member at the STEM School—a STEM-focused specialty public high school in Redmond, Washington, whose student body is filled by a lottery each year.

Concurrently with his participation in the committee, Town was part of the Lake Washington School District’s efforts to create the integrated STEM school where he currently teaches. The school opened in September 2012 with an initial student body composed of two classes (ninth and tenth graders) measuring 150 students each. The school added a new freshman class in September 2013 to raise its student body to three classes and will reach full capacity in the upcoming academic year when it accepts 150 freshman to form the new ninth-grade class. Next year will also include the first senior class, as students from the school’s first intake reach their senior year.

The STEM School offers a practical view—albeit just one school’s experience—of the integration that the NAE report explored in the abstract. Because of the school’s location in the shadow of Microsoft, its student body is drawn from a population that is already predominately engineering-literate, Town notes. Even though entrance into the school is purely lottery, rather than skills, based, “we do a lot of our advanced placement classes a little bit earlier than more traditional high schools, and then we run [four] courses starting in the junior year, which we call signature lab courses,” he says. This includes the course that Town teaches: environmental engineering and sustainable design. (The other signature labs are physics and global engineering; bioengineering, anatomy, and physiology; and forensics and psychology.)

“The philosophy for the environmental engineering course is that we want the kids to use engineering and design solutions to solve the environmental problems that they learned about in their AP environmental science course,” Town says. Those students study the NAE Grand Challenges, which were established in 2008. “A lot of the grand challenges are based on solving environmental problems, and so that means that the [lab] course is very project-based and we give them a number of different required challenges that they have to do,” he says.

The STEM integration at the school ties in to other subjects—such as English in which the students learn technical writing—but also extends to such extracurricular activities as internships and participation in design contests. In one such contest, students were tasked with creating solar-powered light towers that could be used at remote construction sites.

“We’re trying to push the envelope a little bit,” Town says. “But one of the things that we always stress is that we’re piloting ideas that we can replicate in other schools.”

The effort to integrate elements of STEM education into K-12 classrooms at a national level has previously been undertaken by the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. The Common Core focus on reading and math standards and are currently supported by 45 states, the District of Columbia, and 4 territories. The Next Generation Science Standards focus on science—with engineering used as a practical, interdisciplinary way to implement scientific knowledge—and was created by representatives from 26 states. (See Civil Engineering, “New K-12 Science, Engineering Standards Unveiled,” June 2013, pages 26-27.)

“Engineering is an important component of the Next Generation Science Standards,” Town says. “It crosses across the disciplines, and so in order to fully meet Next Generation Science Standards we have to look at integrated STEM.”

Seeing time-sensitive opportunities to further STEM learning and meet standards is part of what the STEM School is trying to do, says Town. “There are always tight windows in engineering, but also in education,” he says. “That’s [also] what the iSTEM report is doing, because it comes right on the shoulders of the Next Generation Standards and everyone is working for two things: one is how do we get STEM integrated in traditional high schools, and number two—which is the really important part of it—is what works from a research perspective.” The work of the NAE committee on integrated STEM education builds upon that foundation, he says.

“The hardest component of meeting the Next Generation Science Standards is the engineering component because it requires a different way of teaching, it requires a different way of assessing, and I think people have been looking for guidance on that for a number of years,” Town says. “And I think that’s what this integrated STEM report is going to start.”

The full report can be downloaded at the National Academies Press webpage.



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