Scott Nielsen was a new middle school principal when STEM was becoming one of the most common acronyms in education. At that time, policymakers were heatedly talking about a gaping hole in schools—the lack of strong programming in critical fields and a matching lack of enthusiasm by all but the most committed students.

“Our administrative team felt we needed something, so we developed some individual tech-based programs—things like robotics and rocketry,” says Nielsen, assistant superintendent of secondary schools in the Poudre School District in Ft. Collins, CO. “That’s how I think a lot of us thought of it then. But I’ve made a transition to seeing it differently; I think we all have.”

Nielsen has gained a reputation for creating innovative STEM programs, and now he wants STEM programs to take the next step. It’s not about equipment or applications, he says, but a fundamental issue with the approach.

“I used to think the key to STEM was having students solve problems. But what we found is that students benefit when we allow them to solve problems that they have found,” he says. “We let them make their world a better place.”

Eric Brinkmann, principal at J.R. Gerritts Middle School in Kimberly, WI, says he believes the school’s focus on STEM requires that it “helps students become better problem-solvers through continuous-improvement thinking.”

While they describe it in different ways, Nielson, Brinkman, and a lot of others with an interest in the now-burgeoning and highly promoted STEM education field believe that STEM programs have to take the next step beyond just student exposure to STEM curriculum. “The learning can’t be in isolation anymore,” Nielson says. “We have to have kids discover their own solutions to real-world projects and let them make a contribution.”

Where STEM Is Headed

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education made recommendations about the future of STEM-based work (see sidebar below). Many of these guidelines are now showing up in STEM programs across the country, but one key concept highlights the idea of working with people in STEM industries to design programs, develop curricula, train staff, provide opportunities for students to try hands-on projects at their school or through internships or visits to the workplace, and even offer instructors.

“We have to move beyond exposure programs and toward engagement,” says David Neils, a former Hewlett-Packard software developer who founded Mentored Pathways, a program that has worked with schools to connect 47,000 students with professional mentors since 1995 so they can experience hands-on projects and develop a sophisticated portfolio and career plan.

Neils is proud of the widely varied opportunities students have been able to experience, but finds the real-world results most gratifying. He outlines a detailed 10-page career plan that a high-school girl sent to her environmental engineering mentor, as well as an exhaustive explanation a team of students presented for a product that would allow farmers to more easily and safely measure the amount of grain in their storage bins.

“Schools need to work with professionals,” Neils says. “They need to use the knowledge of the people in the field to develop these programs and keep them current, and recognize that students gain so much more when they do authentic work on projects that are meaningful and when they join people doing the real work.”

Nielsen says that often companies in the STEM fields don’t have the capacity to fully meet the needs of a school system for mentors or internships. But sometimes schools can use professionals as teachers or to give presentations, and can have staff get extra training through industry groups or with local people in the field.

Beyond that, experts say, it is critical to give students real-life problems to solve. “The best programs out there engage both the minds and hands of students,” says Eric Klopfer, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Scheller Teacher Education Program in Cambridge, MA.

MIT has an extensive K–12 outreach program that provides material for students and resources for teachers. Klopfer’s program specifically provides a variety of “research-driven games, tools, and curricula.”

Getting Started

Principals hoping to develop a new STEM program or to recharge an existing one should consider what exactly they want to do for students—don’t settle on a particular curriculum first, Klopfer advises. “When looking for STEM programs, start with the goals. This may sound obvious, but in many cases the goals are retrofitted to the technology,” he says.

Along with providing the subject matter, give careful consideration to the platforms on which it is presented. “Think about ways that the technology can really change both what and how students are learning,” Klopfer says. This may mean seeking out subject-specific technologies that tightly link the subject and the technology. “These often require more professional development to implement successfully, but can provide some of the biggest changes,” he says.

Staffing the program is also key, and Nielsen says it is important to find the right people who can work with others—and can model collaboration for their students, a skill that both colleges and employers value. They must also keep current with changes in the field.

A Broader Reach

The Elizabeth Forward School District in Elizabeth, PA, has won several top awards for its sophisticated tech programs. Assistant superintendent Todd Keruskin says his schools are focusing on makerspace programs, where students get an opportunity to work on real projects, including one in which they are designing products and producing them on 3-D printers. Elementary students, he notes, are using 3-D printers to design and make their own fidget spinners.

Keruskin specifically promotes computational thinking and coding, and believes that while only some students may learn sophisticated computer science concepts, it is important for all students to be savvy about computers and meet certain basic requirements about understanding how they operate. Graduating students must pass a Python assessment about programming.

“We cannot even fathom the ways computers will touch our lives in the future,” Keruskin says. “My kindergartners are going to graduate in about 2030, and if we don’t think the world is going to be different—and plan for it in education—we are doing all our kids a disservice. It is more than just talking about STEM.”

Other schools offer what’s sometimes referred to as “schoolwide STEM,” asking teachers and students to discuss STEM fields in their lessons, but also finding ways that students can explore the technology firsthand in greater detail in each class.

Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Centeron Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C., says she believes that schools should perhaps spend more time on such efforts rather than developing elaborate, specific curricula, which she says tend to “track” students. While she does not believe in following the “college for all” mantra, she thinks there should be equal opportunity for all students—particularly young ones—to explore STEM fields thoroughly and have equal opportunity to follow their chosen path. “We appreciate the need for training our next generation of scientists and programmers, but we’re also concerned about a leaky pipeline where students get this exposure to these fields but leave them before college—while some students never have an opportunity for that exposure,” Smith says.

There are several programs that help schools “code across the curriculum.” Some experts recommend that learning coding should be required in all schools.

Examples of Innovative STEM Programs

Schools across the country are coming up with new and different approaches to STEM education, from sophisticated specialized high school programs where students learn and use cutting-edge augmented reality programs to introductory robotics instruction in a middle school.

  • At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA, students in the prototyping and engineering materials lab (one of the school’s 14 sophisticated research labs) use computer-aided design equipment to fashion a product or prototype. Then, they manufacture it with industry-standard equipment. Classmates in a neuroscience lab consider solutions to complex mental health issues behind behavioral problems, along with the science of opioid receptors. The school also provides a JUMP lab where underclassmen can undertake independent work, often in an extra “eighth period” the school just developed.
  • At Timberland High School in Wentzville, MO, students connected with mentors in engineering and with local farmers to develop a simpler, safer, and more accurate way for farmers to check the level of product in their grain bins. The prototype they developed was roundly applauded by engineers and farmers who studied it.
  • Schools across the country are taking advantage of MIT’s support of Terrascope Youth Radio, which allows young people to learn communications engineering and also report on critical issues related to science. “It’s radio about scientists trying to figure out how nature works, and also about ordinary people who care about the world around them. It’s radio about us-and radio about you,” one student wrote for a promotional blurb about the program.
  • The Radix Endeavor, supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and MIT, is an online multiplayer game designed to augment math and biology instruction in a “virtual Earth-like world in which students can simulate how a particular species might adapt to environmental changes.” A full set of teacher resources and companion curriculum materials are available.
  • STEM students in western Washington studying aerospace got the chance to chat with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station recently. As part of an extensive effort by NASA to work with schools, NASA offers a host of STEM programs for students and schools.
  • Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, MA, claims to be the first to implement a “coded curriculum” that supplements traditional teaching practices with coding and new technology. Teachers are finding ways to apply coding in courses where it is a traditional fit, but also in the humanities and arts.
  • IOWA Big—a public high school in Cedar Rapids, IA, that serves as a partnership among three school districts—uses a unique competency model to assess its students, which school officials say “emphasizes passion projects and community rather than a packaged curriculum.” Its students have helped a $300-million company more efficiently handle its process of handpicking inventory, assessed trauma issues in the region (and presented ways to reduce them), and helped document and map historic property and objects in the area and record them with the National Register of Historic Places. Students are also helping to design and build a nature center.
  • High Tech High was developed by a coalition of San Diego civic leaders and educators 18 years ago with 450 students, but it has grown to serve 5,300 students in all grades at 13 facilities. The school offers adult education and teacher credentialing for STEM instruction. Student projects have included one that looks at the anatomy of small animals while considering the ethical questions about using them in experiments: one that is helping protect ornamental fish, and one that’s helping to develop farming space and water reclamation systems in urban areas.
  • The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem in New York heavily promotes its STEM education and has had an excellent history of getting girls from low-​income families into college and STEM fields.
  • The public John Ball Park Zoo School accepts 60 sixth graders in the Grand Rapids, MI, region for an intensive yearlong program at the John Ball Zoological Garden studying forestry, astronomy, zoology, chemistry, and physics.
  • P-TECH in New York was launched in 2011 by IBM in cooperation with the city and New York schools to offer a six-year degree in STEM fields. The mostly low-income students who attend receive an associate degree from nearby New York City College of Technology, and many go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree or step right into high-paying jobs.
  • Students in Rock Hill, SC, schools are using the electronic Science Textbook from Discovery Education, which they can access on any device. It includes deep background about a variety of scientific issues and more than 2,000 hands-on labs and activities, many at challenging levels for students hoping to pursue science careers.
  • AWE is an application allowing high school students to create their own mixed-reality experiences with a simple drag-and-drop interface and no code using a computer, smartphone, or tablet. They can customize the material with their own coding or even develop their own AWE platform.
  • In the Peoria Unified School District in Glendale, AZ, the award-winning career and technology education program is offering an ROTC program in which students create rockets and use drones, a law enforcement program using sophisticated science theory in the study of crime scenes, an engineering program in which students build structures out of recycled material, and a fire-science program with a heavy dose of science.

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Defining Parameters

In a report last year, the U.S. Department of Education used input from people in the field to make recommendations about the future of STEM based on the best work being done in education now. It called for:

  • Engaged and networked communities of practice. Recommending the use of outside resources, the report noted that such collaborative networks “foster the skills and growth mindsets among all students that lead to lifelong learning and opportunities for postsecondary and career success, while expanding access to rigorous STEM courses.”
  • Accessible activities that invite intentional play and risk. At all levels, it suggested that such activities “lower barriers to entry and encourage creative expression of ideas, while still engaging diverse students in complex and difficult content.” The report says they should increase a desire to design and be creative, and work together and think in new ways. “The students see that STEM is everywhere, that they have something to contribute to the field, and they learn to take a team-based approach to tackling real-world problems and challenges.”
  • Experiences that include interdisciplinary approaches.The report recommends programming that discovers and solves problems in the way Nielsen describes. “Tasking children and youth with a ‘grand challenge’ helps them understand the relevance of STEM to their lives,” the report says, “while they address issues important to their communities.”
  • Flexible and inclusive learning spaces. Schools should increasingly allow for flexibility in their materials and spaces. They could be located in the classroom, in the natural world, in makerspaces, and by using virtual and technology-based platforms or real work environments. “Flexible learning spaces are adaptable to the learning activity and invite creativity, collaboration, co-discovery, and experimentation in accessible and unintimidating instructor-guided environments,” the report says.
  • Innovative and accessible measures of learning. The report seeks “fewer, smarter, and better tests” that don’t take up too much classroom time and accurately assess learning, including more formative reviews along with portfolio and project result presentations.