Maryland’s high school assessment (HSA) exams indicated that students in Prince George’s County Public Schools learning STEM subjects were not as prepared for graduation as their statewide counterparts. Just sixty-five percent of first-time takers passed the state’s Biology HSA, indicating a disconnect between the content and the skills and processes portions of the exam. Secondary science instructional specialist Godfrey Rangasammy felt that students were having a difficult time making interdisciplinary connections and interpreting science data they were learning.
“Not enough real-world application of science was being taught, and 21stcentury skills were not fully embraced,” says Rangasammy. Little did they know that NASA and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future could provide a solution.
In August 2010, PGCPS implemented the STEM Learning Studios model of NCTAF. Aligning with President Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” initiative, it coordinates STEM-subject teaching to attract educators seeking to excite students from groups typically underrepresented in STEM professions, particularly lowincome students, young women and students of color. Administrators hoped that STEM-subject staff could learn to teach more effectively through an environment of continuous cross-collaboration.
“In the real world, people work in teams. But in teaching, one teacher is supposed to be in control of everything,” says Elizabeth Foster, director of strategic initiatives at NCTAF. “It doesn’t sound dramatic, but teachers never get the time to sit together to plan.”
STEM Group Strategy
Learning Studios are in three of the district’s 26 high schools. Participation occurs in the ninth grade, a fork-in-the-road year when kids either get turned on by science and math or opt out, says Foster.
Learning Studios comprise STEM teachers and volunteers (in PGCPS’s case, from NASA) who work in STEM skills-based jobs for a three-day “Design Day” session held in the summer before the start of the school year. Teachers work as one interdisciplinary team of five (science, math, technology, engineering and a special education teacher), and bring their curricula and create a project (“module”) to tackle teaching a hard-to-grasp concept in Earth and Space Sciences with the help of their assigned “expert” volunteer.
Teams gather quarterly to report classroom progress and gain feedback. DuVal High School’s module on “violent nature” had students creating volcanoes and studying the effects of lava’s flow and viscosity on buildings made of different materials. Bowie High School studied alternative energy forms by building solar cars and wind turbines. Gwynn Park High School focused on satellites.
“Students seem to be exploring science versus just learning it,” says Jane Spence, principal of Bowie High School. “I definitely think these sorts of creative approaches to teaching inspire in-depth lifelong learning, rather than the cursory memorization we so often see in science classes.”
Key Expert Volunteers
STEM-field expert volunteers are integral to success. NCTAF developed its first STEM Learning Studio with a grant from NASA, in partnership with the Goddard Space Flight Center, to help improve STEM teaching in several Maryland districts, including Queen Anne’s County, PGCPS and Howard County.
Rangasammy is the STEM Learning Studios coordinator for PGCPS and works with NCTAF to pair volunteer scientists, engineers and astronauts with teachers working on modules. They advise on everything from best practices for building fuel cells to how engineers work together during project planning. The grant used to fund the project allowed the district to buy materials for the three sites and for participating teachers to receive a stipend for the extra time designing projects and meeting in the summer.
“Students use a hands-on approach in the role of being real-world scientists,” says Tracie Malone, principal of Gwynn Park High School. “Many students view their science class separate from their math class and separate from their technology class. It’s a revelation to them to see teachers working together across disciplines to support the projects. Students have become aware of how all the skills learned in each content area are connected and needed to produce a final product.”
Jennifer Elise Chase is a contributing writer in Massachusetts.