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How To Build and Sustain A Culture of STEM Teaching and Learning

The right professional learning and leadership can support real-world experiences in the classroom

Using community engagement, professional development, custom curricula and digital resources, the leaders of Oak Ridge Schools in Tennessee hope to transform the district into a recognized leader in STEM education. The emphasis is on a growth in instruction, with the hopes that the learning environment will become one of critical thinking, problem-solving, higher-order thinking and inquiry to arrive at creative solutions. This web seminar featured Oak Ridge’s superintendent, who discussed his district’s plan and the role the partnership with Discovery Education will play in the successful transformation.

Bruce Borchers: Yes, we have to focus on standards. Yes, we have to assess what students are learning. But we also have to have real focus on helping students obtain a career pathway.

Last year we embarked on developing our seven keys to college and career readiness. Number 7 asks that all students participate in either AP coursework, dual enrollment, industry certification or military preparation before graduation.

Because of our size we’re able to embed STEM instruction and resources in every single building at every single level—Pre-K through 12. That’s a fairly daunting task, but we’re well on our way to making it happen. We couldn’t think of anybody more appropriate to help us on this journey than Discovery Education. We could not be doing what we’re doing without their assistance.

We are using their Techbooks and their streaming, but the professional development pieces are at the heart of this initiative. STEM coaching is a unique way for us to make a dent in changing our teaching practices. We have over 400 teachers in our district, and over 50 are engaging in intense professional development and coaching with the help of Discovery Education. It’s having an amazing impact. It’s opening doors to classrooms, opening doors to thoughts and lesson plans that can be used and shared. We have seen a huge uptick in our use of the Techbook, especially at the elementary and middle school level, which is very exciting for us.

Why are we focusing on STEM? We want every one of our students to be prepared for a career that is actually going to exist when they leave us. I tell my staff we’ve been a good district. We continue to be a good district. And none of this new information makes yesterday wrong. But now with new information, all this does is make tomorrow better.

Cindy Moss: STEM is not something you buy. It’s not something you do once a week on Friday when everything else is finished. It’s not something you do once a year as a special day. It’s a culture. STEM learners need to be encouraged to be innovators. That means we need to let them ask questions that matter to them. We need to help them figure out how to use different sources. We need them to know how to bring different texts and different experiences together. We need to help them figure out the most effective and efficient way to work with other people, and how to communicate when they arrive at a conclusion.

We also feel that trans-disciplinary is the way to go. When working, people don’t say, “Well, from 9 to 9:45 I’m going to do math. And then from 9:45 to 10:30 I’ll do communication and literacy.” In the real world, you use all of the curriculum together, all of the content that you possess, as well as your skills, to solve problems.

But before any of this can happen, our teachers must become STEM teachers. We all know that teachers were not trained that way. So we come in to partner with your district to create a shared STEM vision. Your STEM industry stakeholders, your educators, your parents, your kids—everyone needs to be able to verbalize that STEM vision and understand why it’s so important.

Rob Warren: STEM is truly woven throughout our entire organization, whether it be our world-renowned, world-class digital content, or in supporting thought leadership and student and teacher engagement programs. It’s embedded in everything that we do as an organization.

It starts first and foremost with the students. How can we have transformative, real-world, hands-on experiences for those students, and then connect them with business leaders?

At the educator level, how are we best able to collectively support our STEM educators and then connect them with other educators not only within the respective community, but across the nation as a whole? Having that collaboration is critically important to the shared vision.

Moss: We have looked at a lot of research and what it takes to make a change in teacher practice, as well as teacher culture. The National Science Foundation spent nearly $1 billion on something called The Urban Systemic Initiative, designed to get high school and middle school science and math teachers to do inquiry.

After 10 years, what they found is that if you want to change a teacher’s practice, you need 80 hours of high-quality PD over two years focused around a set of standards with high-quality curriculum. I don’t know about your district, but the districts I worked in, and districts that I visit, typically get a day in the summer before school starts and a day in January and February. So the system is kind of set up against us.

To take it even further, to change the culture—and that’s the ultimate goal—we need 160 hours over three years’ time. So we’ve set out to create this research-based system to grow all the pieces so the teachers, the administrators, the district, the community, the parents and the kids understand the skills they need in STEM.

We created the STEM learning continuum because we know the reality of a teacher’s life is that they have multiple standards. So we looked at the standards that were out there and used those as the framework. And then we looked at the ISTE technology standards, at Next Generation Science standards, at Common Core math and literacy practices. We pulled that all together in a way that would help a teacher know what their classroom should look like, what they should be doing, and what their students should be doing.

Educators tell us that the first time they look at this continuum, they understand how it’s possible to do all the things they want to do for their students. Part of what we’re doing is helping teachers understand how to maximize the technology that they have. We work with the administrators and their job-embedded coaching so that they can create an environment where it’s safe for their teachers to take risks and to try to use new things.

Warren: At Discovery Education we wholeheartedly believe in having the best high-quality resources in our suite of services. I encourage everyone to visit and take a look at the standards-based digital content—from our world-renowned streaming services, to the digital textbook replacements or core instructional resources, including our science Techbook, our social studies Techbook, and our revolutionary new math Techbook, which we believe will truly change the math narrative.

Along the journey, it’s understanding where we are, where we’re heading. And we believe in the evaluative component to understand: Are we are on the right track relative to improvements in student performance? Are we growing teachers in the capacity that we want? Are they using digital content and digital resources in the most effective way?

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: