Teaching Students to Solve Problems
Kathleen Regan came to Glen Rock Public Schools four years ago thinking she would work only six months as the interim director of curriculum and instruction. Instead, she has stayed and succeeded—helping place the affluent, 2,500-student New Jersey district 20 miles northwest of Manhattan in the national spotlight for its science, technology, engineering and math program that extends from kindergarten to college-level work in high school.
Regan, charged with taking the high performing district to the next level, oversaw a rewriting of the science curriculum to include a focus on engineering—even with 6-year-olds—and integrate math and technology in the lessons. "We were developing STEM before STEM was the buzzword," says Regan, who also is an adjunct professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education.
The academic overhaul, part of a routine curriculum review the district does every five years, coincided with the building of an $11 million, top-of-the-line math and science wing at Glen Rock Middle and High School. The two-story, 35,000- square-foot addition, funded through a construction bond referendum, includes a greenhouse with climate-controlled windows, two chemistry labs with multiple venting stations for more experiment space, three biology classrooms and two physics rooms. Math classes are nearby so teachers can collaborate easily.
The STEM program in Glen Rock stands out in part because it starts in elementary school. "If you wait until even middle school, students have already developed a self-image as to whether they're scientists or not, whether they're good in math," Regan says. In kindergarten, the engineering assignments focus on teaching students to be problem solvers. A favorite lesson, centered on "The Three Little Pigs," requires the youngsters to build houses that could withstand the Big Bad Wolf. The kids love it. "They come back after that lab saying, 'I'm an engineer. It really worked. The wolf couldn't blow my house down,'" Regan says.
In middle school, every student takes a pre-engineering course in sixth- and eighth-grades. High school students must take three years of science, but most take four, Regan says.
Broadening the Landscape
Before writing the STEM curriculum, Regan and her team researched what elite colleges were offering and talked with industry professionals, not only educators. "Many districts make the mistake of looking only at what other districts are doing," Regan says. "It's got to be bigger than that."
Hiring the right teachers, Regan says, is as important as the curriculum. She recruited a former architect to teach pre-engineering, and the physics teacher worked in the engineering industry. Regan and David Verducci, who became superintendent of the district in 2009, agree that professional development doesn't mean just sending teachers to conferences. Instead, teachers visit college campuses or other school districts, and a doctoral student from the nearby Stevens Institute of Technology comes to the district to share new research directly with them. "It wasn't that we added so much money," Verducci says. "It was that we really refocused how we were spending that money."
Early results show the efforts are helping boost student achievement. The district began its STEM effort about three years ago with an emphasis on improving math instruction in elementary school. Last year, about 75 percent of fifth-graders scored advantaged or proficient on the state math test, up from about a quarter before the changes, according to Regan.
For districts wanting to start or expand a STEM program, Regan cautions that it takes time. "We've been working on this for four years. I still have five years' worth of work ahead of me."
Ericka Mellon is a K12 education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.