Engineering is a must-take class at Columbia Academy, the middle school in Columbia Heights District 13. Though no one is required to take the course, practically every student enrolls because it’s just that much fun.

Middle school engineering teacher Angel Brown and math teacher Emily Christiansen take an interdisciplinary approach to the class, teaching students science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) all while treating them like project engineers. The teachers require students to work as a team to design, build, and create all manner of items—on time and on budget—and then sell a client on their finished product.

During the past four years, students have developed everything from prosthetic legs and doll furniture to zoo hospitals and amenities for their school’s new entrance. In the process students use their math skills to take measurements, calculate scale, and procure supplies, figuring out sale prices and tacking on taxes. The student engineers also research their ideas, develop design concepts, and bring their ideas to life.

While students hone their scientific, mathematic, and technological skills in the school’s engineering classes, they also experience what it’s like to be an engineer, opening their eyes to new college majors and career paths.

“The engineering class has re-engaged the kids. They love the challenge, and they no longer look at us and say, ‘I don’t see the purpose in learning this,’” says Brown, district engineering coordinator. “They now see a need for the Pythagorean theorem or calculating fractions. They understand that everything they learn in school has an application in the real world.”

At the P–12 STEM Education Research Colloquium in July, Brown and Christiansen presented Columbia Academy’s engineering curriculum and guided audience members through a condensed version of a class project.

“They do STEM integration that is just phenomenal, and they give students engineering design challenges that have great context,” says Tamara Moore, associate professor of math/engineering education and co-executive director of the STEM Education Center. “They showed participants how they thought about developing their curriculum and then let us play as students to see what it was like. It was really very helpful for teachers who would want to plan even a one-week project.”

Columbia Academy’s engineering program serves as a prime example of how teachers can synthesize STEM disciplines into one effective curriculum. STEM integration helps students master various concepts and deepen their understanding of them, giving them the ability to apply their learning and gain lasting meaning from it, Moore says.

Collegial colloquium

It’s an important endeavor—and a hot topic—to figure out the best ways to teach STEM subjects, increase students’ proficiency, and boost their problem-solving skills. For two days this summer, that endeavor drew nearly 150 people, from Eagan to Egypt, for the second annual colloquium.

The colloquium brought together educators from preschool to high school, higher education professors and researchers, government officials, business leaders, and many others to see, experience, and hear about the latest STEM research and how to best apply it in the classroom. Keynote speakers included Maura Borrego, an associate professor in the department of engineering education at Virginia Tech and a program director at the National Science Foundation, and David Hammer, a professor of education and physics at Tufts University, where he co-directs the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.

Concerns about the quality of STEM education in the United States are quite real. Somehow, students are not connecting with these subjects. In fact, the country faces an inadequate pipeline of students focusing on math, science, and engineering who will meet the needs of our technology-focused society.

Notably, a recent survey from the National Center for Education Statistics found in a 10-year survey that of 4 million ninth graders from 2001, 69.8 percent graduated from high school but only 32.5 percent were college-ready. Then a mere 6.9 percent initially majored in a STEM subject while 4.1 percent actually graduated with a STEM major. At the same time, 90 percent of job growth comes from STEM fields, according to economic estimates, including more than 2 million STEM job openings in 2012.

Research already has shown that one critical—and highly effective—way to keep students interested in STEM subjects is to integrate the disciplines into one curriculum. And it turns out that the perfect vehicle for that is engineering.

“There is very little engineering in K–12 education, but it’s coming,” notes Karl Smith (Ph.D. educational psychology, ’80), co-executive director of the STEM Education Center and Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of civil engineering. “Something we can really do—and the heart of the center—is to focus on STEM integration. Students come away from a fairly high-quality education with a fragmented view.”

That’s because most schools still teach subjects as individual units instead of interrelated topics. “Students don’t see the connection among courses or between ideas, and so many of the challenges we face today can’t be addressed by folks from one discipline,” adds Smith. “We’re trying to figure out how to create curricula and pedagogy and assessments that help advance this integrated approach.”

Integration in action

At the colloquium, it was especially enlightening for Wendy Niesl, K–12 science specialist for the South Washington County School District 833, to learn about strategies for integrating math and science into a cohesive curriculum. Specifically, she attended a session by Moore and doctoral student Kristina Tank about PictureSTEM, a new curriculum they developed to use literature to teach engineering concepts in the K–6 classroom.

One example Moore and Tank presented involved a five-module unit called “Designing a Hamster Habitat,” in which first graders read several books related to hamsters, frogs, and animal habitats. Then teachers carry concepts from the stories into math lessons related to 2- and 3-D shapes. Eventually the students design a tube course for the hamsters, applying some of their new knowledge about the animals, shapes, and spatial reasoning. About the STEM Education Center The STEM Education Center includes researchers from five U of M colleges. Its expertise draws on several CEHD departments, with core faculty from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Offices are located on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul.

“One thing we know is that if you teach kids abstractly, they might learn it for the time being but not forever,” says Moore. “The context and mixture of subjects helps them learn more deeply and internalize the things they are learning.”

Niesl thought the session was a good reminder that pairing literature with math and science is an effective best practice, one that her district trains teachers to do and uses periodically. “The literacy piece is important when teaching science,” says Niesl, who taught high school biology and chemistry and is now starting her Ph.D. in science education at the U. “You need a lot of different strategies for exposing kids to science. You can’t just learn science by doing. You need to hear it, see it, and do it, and you have to read about it.”

It’s certainly easier to utilize literature in science or math lessons in elementary school, where students often have one teacher for most of their subjects. It’s a little tougher in middle and high school, where teachers typically operate in silos. “We struggle with trying to cross those lines in secondary schools,” notes Niesl. “I think the intent of STEM education is to push that a little bit and get teachers to think about how all the different areas fit together in a practical way.”

For Debbie Belfry, a veteran educator and director of career and technical education for Bloomington School District 271, the colloquium served as a fantastic opportunity to bring together researchers, educators, students, business leaders, and other stakeholders to exchange information and best practices related to STEM. That way, teachers can hear about the latest research while also inspiring new research projects by sharing their real-world classroom experiences.

“We need to continue to have conversations as both our workforce changes and our educational systems change to meet the growing needs in the workforce,” says Belfry. She appreciated hearing from STEM education experts from around the country. “It’s one thing to do research in isolation but, unless we all talk together, including bringing in information about the workforce, we aren’t going to move forward as well or as informed as we could have otherwise.”

Belfry also gleaned fresh examples of different ways educational institutions can partner with businesses or other organizations like the Science Museum of Minnesota. That way, students and teachers gain access to hands-on learning and professional development. In addition, listening to students present posters from various class projects was an effective way to see the freshest STEM learning in action.

“For all of us,” says Belfry, “whether we are in education or the workforce or doing research, it’s important to see what these students comprehend and how they can put their learning into context and keep them motivated and engaged.”

Read more about the 2012 colloquium and watch for the next colloquium, scheduled for August 5-6, 2013, to be announced on the STEM Education Center website.

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2012 issues of Connect, a publication of the College of Education + Human Development