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A Collaborative Approach to STEM Instruction

  • November 14, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

When we think of STEM, we tend to think of science and math—technical left-brain types of topics that have a tendency to turn the right-brainers among us off. In truth, effective STEM instruction requires a broader focus that includes consideration of less traditionally technical topics—like writing, critical thinking, and creativity. That type of focus can both serve to increase the number of STEM-competent students and, perhaps, drive more interest among students in STEM learning.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) led to the identification of four core skills most important for learning. Known as the “4 C’s,” these skills are: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. They’re foundational for effective STEM—in fact, STEM could be considered a metaphor for the 4 C’s. Let’s explore collaboration and creativity in particular.

The Current State of STEM

The demand for students well-versed in STEM-related subjects is rapidly increasing, making STEM a high-priority issue and one that has captured the attention of government, industry, education, and communities. Some major cities have recently announced plans to provide funding to support these efforts, and the federal government has stepped up to the plate, too.

President Obama has supported STEM through funding and has announced a “Kid Science Advisors” campaign to help bring attention to the sciences. In April, the White House hosted a group of student innovators for Science Fair 2016, an opportunity for young inventors to share their creations and creativity with each other, the president, and other well-known people.

However, there are simply not enough students—and particularly not enough women and minorities—pursuing STEM-related educational opportunities. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. ranked 35th out of 64 countries in math and 27th in science. Additionally, the study confirmed that fewer students are entering STEM fields than in previous years. There are a wide range of reasons for this and just as many potential solutions. To address these issues, a variety of collaborative approaches are coming into play.

A Collaborative Approach

Collaboration is one of the four C’s of P21 and a critical component for driving effective STEM education. It can occur in a number of ways: across disciplines, educators, classrooms, and communities.

It’s not just science, IT, and math teachers who need to be involved in teaching STEM topics. Collaboration can happen across disciplines by partnering with colleagues in the English department, libraries, media specialists, and others to engage students in STEM. That’s what Huntingdon Area Middle School has done in a pilot that brings together teachers from four disciplines who instruct students in a project-based rotation model.

Collaboration is also necessary among educators. The great gap in STEM competencies among graduates and students of all ages can best be addressed by teachers armed with the knowledge and skills to meet these needs. If teachers can’t teach it, students can’t learn it.

For example, the University of Denver’s Center for Professional Development will partner with Denver-based Silicon STEM Academy to offer “STEM for Grown-Ups.” This partnership is designed to educate the educators with a new curriculum of interactive STEM courses that teachers can take for continuing education unit credit. The University of Notre Dame’s Center for STEM Education is another case where instruction is provided for both teachers and students.

Students may learn best when they learn together, making the classroom another important point of collaboration. Providing an environment conducive to group learning, interaction, and engagement creates a focus on active learning that may be more meaningful to today’s students who are accustomed to many, and varied, inputs. Consider Forest Hills Northern in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which says that “students have embraced a problem-solving curriculum that pairs coursework with hands-on activities and group projects. Courses include Algebra II, biology, computer-aided design (CAD), geometry, and Engineering 101.”

Finally, collaboration is also critical within your community. Forming connections between education and business can help to ensure that STEM talent is available to meet current and future business needs. Networking within the community can also improve fundraising, like one school system in Georgia that is partnering with the business community to drive greater interest in STEM and fund a new STEM Center. To offset costs, they have asked local businesses to name rooms in a building for $25,000 per room.

Getting Creative with STEM

Schools have slowly begun merging science and math lessons with visual arts as a way to add a hands-on component to STEM curriculum. Here are some examples of how communities and school districts are getting creative about bringing STEM to their students.

A partnership between Discovery Center and engineering firm Bartlett & West developed a STEM learning experience for elementary school students in 2015. Their program is based on creative activities that keep students interested while teaching material that would help students meet Common Core and Next Generation standards.

Makerspaces are becoming another popular option to engage students in activities of their choosing, making STEM fun and collaborative. In classrooms like King Middle School in Maine, students get busy drafting, measuring, cutting, and conferring with each other in teams as they design and build projects in the ed tech classroom. Across the country in California, teachers and administrators took advantage of an asbestos disruption to create an entirely new learning environment when students returned to class. Now students sit in groups, rather than at desks in rows, to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Takeaway: Effective STEM instruction is top-of-mind for many these days as educators seek ways of ensuring that United States students will be able to provide the foundation for communities and businesses to fare well in the future. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to making progress here, there are plenty of best practice examples and use cases to draw upon from a collaboration perspective. Time will tell whether these varied initiatives will lead to measurable success, but in the meantime, it appears that students are having fun and becoming engaged in learning—that can’t be a bad thing.


1. “A Better Approach to Teaching STEM” ASME. February 2016.
2. “Obama Launches ‘Kid Science Advisors’ Campaign; Aims to Boost Kids’ Involvement in Science” The Economic Times. May 20, 2016.
3. “Science Fair 2016: Meet the Next Generation of America’s Innovators” The White House. April 8, 2016.
4. “Why This One STEM Course Has Four Different Teachers” eSchool News. April 26, 2016.
5. “U Denver to Launch ‘STEM for Grown-Ups’” Campus Technology. May 4, 2016.
6. “Changing a District’s Future, through STEM” eSchool News. November 10, 2015.
7. “New STEM Academy Takes Hands-On, Collaborative Approach” M Live. May 19, 2016.
8. “7 Ways Schools Can Get Creative with STEAM” eSchool News. October 5, 2015.
9. “Learning Beyond the Classroom at King Middle School’s Makerspace” Mainebiz. May 16, 2016.
10. “Changes for Lake View Elementary Keep Coming: STEAM Learning is Next” Huntington Beach Independent. April 27, 2016.