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Developing A High Functioning STEM Community

Updated: Nov 22, 2019

STEM education is about doing.

STEM education not only about knowledge. A scientist can tell you about the behaviors of the natural and physical world, engineers can solve the problems of the world and create worlds that never existed before, based on scientific principles. If knowledge is the only foundation of STEM education, then it is not only challenging but fundamentally impossible for a standardized test to evaluate whether a student has been properly educated in STEM or assess if a student can be successful in a STEM field. Sure, a standardized test is a measure but if it is the only measure, then it is obvious why students can perform poorly in class or even drop out of school while being prolific and genius coders. To better educate students in STEM, the education paradigm cannot be one-way for all.

To create a successful STEM community, it must include more than testing and the standardized, traditional modes of assessing knowledge. It requires an exploration of alternatives to standardized testing. There is a well-established culture of test prepping and test taking, however, I believe and some know that teachers and our students will benefit from bigger, broader, and more modern teaching methods like project-based learning or portfolio-based assessment.

Evaluating Learning: Shifting Assessment from the Individual to the Collective

Developing smarter ways to evaluate individual participation and assess performance is critical. Taking the time to determine a target audience's capacity to "make" or "engineer" in the form of an evaluation will likely have more impact compared to time invested in developing a Master Test to assess accumulated knowledge by our students. Students have talents as diverse as their learning modalities but as educators we are evaluating them by the same standards. And it is time to stop, look, listen, and change. It has been shown that testing youth is not an accurate representation of what they know. In fact, many STEM educators are leading a movement to neutralize the role of testing. For reference, "The Whole Child" approach popularized by Chan Zuckerberg is a good read.

A key understanding in an evaluation of performance in STEM is that measurable and tangible accomplishment (and knowledge for that matter) is generally achieved cumulatively via a group, a collective. STEM has individual subject matter expertise at its foundation but its utility and application are all about the team. This utility and practical application help us understand the importance of collaboration (both in the context of STEM in the community and STEM in a professional environment). So as an educator, ask yourself: What strategies and tactics can I learn, leverage, or develop to better evaluate the capability of my class, my school, and/or my community to work together or foster change? What metrics exist?  How can I customize them to use in my community? The STEM Education Resource by the National Science Board is a good reference and resource to identify useful metrics.

Recently, I was asked how I evaluate students who participate in one of my STEM NOLA programs. My response was simple: If a student arrives with incorrect and or very little knowledge about how his heart works, and at the end of a three-hour program on a Saturday morning, that student can tell you what the heart is, how it works generally, the components of the heart, and that same student has built a model heart and possibly dissected a heart, what do you evaluate and how do you evaluate it? The completion, the accomplishment, the doing, the efficacy of the assignment is the achievement, it must be central to any evaluation. Standard evaluation metrics do not adequately capture information particularly pertinent or relevant to successfully learning, doing, and building real-time, hands-on, inquiry and fun-based STEM.

What is a High-Functioning STEM Community?

A high-functioning STEM community is youth-focused, action-oriented, hands always on, adult-coached, and try-fail-try-again based. It is a means for  a STEM community to not only to transfer relevant knowledge, best practices, successful practicalities, and expected social norms but also to share, embed, and make easily accessible those best practices and lessons learned within the generations of STEM stakeholders in your community. For some communities like mine, the African-American community, there is an over-incarceration of black males. The removal of three million males from any community will cripple it. For the purposes of a creating a high-functioning community, not necessarily a STEM community, traditional models have adults working to earn a living and elders are "free" to teach and train youth. That model is classic in many cultures outside of America.

In the community of STEM NOLA, we leverage what believe is best from that classic model. We are K-12 centered and we have two primary groups - paid college students and volunteer STEM professionals, retired professionals, community elders - who are focused only on the youth. The college students are paid because we have learned and know that in a high-functioning STEM community, the adults (i.e., the STEM professionals) must commit to do the heavy lift so that the burden of those who follow will not be clouded by the need to earn a living.

Next Steps in Nurturing Your Community

As you identify a means to determine a means to evaluate performance, select pertinent metrics, establish a practical and prudent means to share, teach, build, and learn, it will likely reshape and/or redefine your definition of community and how a community - your community - takes steps towards becoming high-functioning. To do so, we must establish communities that share the lessons of an academic pathway (school, teachers and students) and economic pathway (job-based, STEM professional) to youth. These communities must nurture curiosity in youth amidst a world advancing towards automation, robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The utility of community may be the domain of the Humanities where a philosopher and a sociologist will study the impact of automation on the people, however, for your community to succeed in this evolving world, it must create and customize its methods.

The building and development of a high-functioning STEM community is time-intensive, challenging, and dedication demanding but it can be done. I have outlined a very high-level way to get there and I know it works. I know it works because for the past 5 years, STEM NOLA and I have worked in New Orleans and within the state of Louisiana to build and assemble a STEM community that is high-functioning and not only willing to share and replicate, but has shared its methods and been replicated, across this nation. Do your homework, read the articles referenced in this article, call us but not matter something and give some thought to evaluating what you have done, when you do it.

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