If you Google STEM—the acronym coined by Dr. Judith Ramaley from the National Science Foundation, which stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”—you will find over 410,000,000 search results. These range from cute lesson plan ideas (like fairy tale STEM projects) to entirely new school programs devoted solely to the teaching and “doing” of STEM. This interest in STEM is for good reason; research has shown exposure to courses in the STEM fields help students to develop critical and creative thinking skills, while also helping them make decisions and solve problems. As our country and the world move toward a more technologically driven society, for the U.S. to succeed economically, students will need to develop their capabilities in STEM. We also know that exposure to these subjects help to increase science literacy that can impact the next generation of innovators.
However, as the world continues to tell us of the importance of STEM education and the need for more students to fill job openings in STEM-based careers, I find many teachers and administrators have questions regarding what it means to “do STEM.” Does it mean students building towers made of straw that can hold an object weighing two pounds? Does “doing STEM” mean putting tables in our hallways and libraries to create “maker spaces” to engage students in designing things? Does it mean purchasing special STEM-based curriculum programs? Further, as I work with Christian schools, I am often asked: what does “doing STEM” mean in a faith-based instructional program?
Whether or not Christian schools “do STEM” is really not the right question, at least in my mind. In truth, if your Christian school has been offering some sort of a science or math program at any point, you have been doing STEM. If your students have been engaged in using any tool that man has developed—a ruler, a protractor, or any form of technology—you have been doing STEM. What might be new to your school or program is the purposeful inclusion of engineering classes or practices. But if you have engaged your students in problem solving or the designing of a tool to solve a problem, you have been doing engineering, which means you have been doing STEM. The question we need to be asking and answering is: what is the faith vision for our STEM courses?
Developing a Vision for STEM in Christian Schools
The position of a teacher holds great power and even greater responsibility. As teachers, we have the power to allow God to lead children to their inspired purpose. The manner in which we teach can allow our students to experience the love of Christ firsthand. Through the design of our lessons and the strategies we use, we can help our students grow in their love for God while strengthening their ability to listen to God, understand His will for their lives, and fulfill the purposes that He has ordained for them.
As administrators, we know the design and implementation of our programs must always point us back to the mission God has given us. Our Christian schools must have programs and courses that expose students to the STEM-based disciplines because we must show our students that the findings of science and the Bible do not conflict. Through the knowledge scientists have gleaned from studying God’s world over the last few centuries, we can teach our students that God is creator of all. We can also teach them how mathematical truths demonstrate the orderliness and precision of God. But more importantly, we know some of our students will find their inspired purpose through our STEM programs. For those students whose inspired purpose does not lie in these disciplines, these same programs can continue to lay the foundation for developing a passion and love for God.
If your school currently has a STEM program, or is moving to add STEM courses or purchase STEM-based curriculum, consider asking:
- How does this program, curriculum, or method of teaching move our students deeper in their understanding of how God designed this world?
- How does it help our students find their inspired purpose?
- How does it allow our educational program to reinforce biblical concepts?
In addition to asking these larger questions, I encourage you to do a little “dis2ecting” of any specific STEM-based curriculum you may be using, developing, or considering. The acronym DIS2ECT stands for Design (Backwards), Individualization, Scaffolding and Strategies, Experiential Learning, Cooperative Learning, and Teamwork. Designed by Spaulding and Flannagan (2012) as a lesson planning framework to meet students’ needs in an inclusive science classroom, it can be a great tool for Christian schools to assess the overall quality of the curriculum program to be purchased or can be a tool in designing curriculum units.
DIS2ECTing Our STEM Programs
Proverbs 16:3 (“Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will established your plans”) and Proverbs 19:21 (“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails”) provide the foundation for why we should purposefully design our curriculum or assess the nature of any curriculum we purchase for our schools. Effective curriculum is designed with the end in mind, which ensures alignment between the standards that we expect students to know, understand, and be able to do; how we will assess learning; and the selection of various learning experiences that students will engage in during the learning process. These questions can help guide your evaluation of curriculum for its design:
- Do the curriculum and its key documents provide you with the big idea statements—ideas that will endure over time? If it is not a Christian-based curriculum, can you see an alignment between the biblical understandings that ground the STEM content we are teaching? (A great resource to use for the content big ideas can be found in the Encyclopedia of Biblical Truths by Ruth Haycock.)
- Does it have a clear set of standards that identify what you want your students to know, understand, and be able to do in the specified STEM area(s)?
- Do the activities engage students in hands-on, minds-on science learning?
- Are students learning how to design their own research investigations, including those that are descriptive (studies that answer questions like how), historical (studies that answer questions dealing with past events or ideas), and experimental (research studies that deal with changing something)?
- Does the curriculum allow students to solve real-world STEM problems? For example, if the curriculum has engineering components, are they based on real-world problems, and does the unit build the engineering task off of science concepts?
Jesus commands us to love one another (John 13:34). In the classroom, we model Christ’s love by building relationships with our students. To do this, we must be responsive to academic and cultural differences. Sue and Sue (2003) describe cultural competence as including awareness, knowledge, skills, and advocacy. This can be accomplished by using student’s strengths and interests as a bridge to new learning, and it means we develop ways to meet students at their point of need. In reviewing the curriculum, ask:
- Does the curriculum provide ways to get to know students (interest inventories, surveys that allow students to tell you how they like to learn)?
- Does the curriculum provide suggestions on how the teacher can differentiate learning by STEM interest and readiness? Examples of this would be choice in lessons and assignments, as well as tiered instructional groups.
- Does the curriculum provide graphic organizers or varied instructional approaches to the STEM content, based on how students process information (auditory, visually, kinesthetic)?
S: Strategies and Scaffolds
Psalm 139:13–14 states, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” God has made each child uniquely and wonderfully, so our teaching must adjust, flex, ebb, and flow to address the different learning and personality characteristics of the children in front of us. In other words, we must have the proper strategies and scaffolding in place to support our students. As you assess curriculum for this area, does it provide examples of how teachers might support critical and creative thinking, problem solving skills, and ways to ensure all students are learning? In reviewing the curriculum:
- Does it use various strategies for teaching students STEM vocabulary (Frayer Model, Concept Attainment, Concept Definition Mapping?) as well as summarize and process information (e.g., graphic organizers)?
- Does the curriculum document include scaffolds such as hint cards or sentence frames to help all learners to succeed?
E: Experiential Learning
There is no better example of a master teacher than Jesus. Jesus knew his audience and he used a variety of methods to engage them. He used examples of problem situations to challenge his audiences. He encouraged cooperation and often times told stories that created disequilibrium to draw his audience in to learn from him. And, to teach Peter that faith is required, we see a real example of experiential learning in Matthew 14:28–29. In our classrooms, experiential learning is most powerful before students learn any content knowledge. Questions to ask:
- Does the STEM curriculum allow students to experience a concrete learning experience before content is introduced? For example, to learn about scarcity, does the curriculum allow students to experience the concept of scarcity somehow?
- Examine the lesson plans and ask, who leads these experiences—the teacher or the student? How often are students given a chance to do science instead of watching science?
- Are the engineering activities in the curriculum real and relevant to what students must know, understand, and do? For example, does the curriculum employ engineering processes used in real world context (i.e. students using their understanding of magnets in order to design a maglev system to move objects)?
C: Cooperative Learning
Psalm 133:1–3 (ESV) proclaims, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head…” God calls us to do life together. In our classrooms, our students need to work and learn together. Cooperative learning strategies help the teacher to facilitate student groups and mechanisms in which they can learn to talk together. In reviewing the curriculum, ask:
- How do students work together in the curriculum?
- What structures or processes are in place to equip students to collaborate?
Proverbs 27:17 (ESV) states that “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Again, as Christians, our most important work is done together. As you review for evidence of suggestions to help with teaming, consider:
- Does the curriculum provide ideas on how specialists (e.g., media, gifted, resource) can help the classroom teacher implement the lessons?
- Are there explicit opportunities for collaboration with other teachers, either in the same subject or across different subject areas?
In conclusion, let’s just not do something for the sake of doing it! If we are going to do STEM, or writing across the curriculum, or interdisciplinary instruction, or any other specific pedagogical approach, let us embrace it because it is the best way to teach our students. Let us pursue any new initiative—including STEM—with a clear vision of how it moves our students towards a deeper relationship in their walk with God.
DISECT: A Framework for Designing Inclusive Science Instruction. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ996827
Ruth Haycocks’s Encyclopedia of Biblical truths: https://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Bible-Truths-School-Subjects/dp/B002APZGM0
Roslund, S. and Rodgers, E. 2014. Makerspaces (21st Century Skills Innovation Library: Makers as Innovators). Ann Arbor, MI: Cherry Lake Publishing.
Spaulding, C. and J.S. Flannagan. 2012. DISECT: A Framework for Designing Inclusive Science Instruction. Exceptional Children, 44(6).
Sue, D. and D. Sue. 2003. Counseling the culturally different: Theory and practice (4th ed.). New York: John Wiley.
About the Author
Dr. Jenny Sue Flannagan is an associate professor and the director of the Martinson Center for Mathematics and Science at Regent University. Prior to coming on full-time at Regent, Jenny Sue served in the Interdisciplinary Study Program for Regent’s School of Undergraduate Studies and at Virginia Beach City Public Schools. She also taught science in grades 6–12 in Virginia Beach City Public Schools. In addition to her work in public education, Flannagan has presented at a number of local, state, and national conferences on topics including differentiating instruction in science, inquiry-based science, using the four-question strategy to help students design experiments, and Lesson Study. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. You can learn more about her work at justsimplescience.com and www.regent.edu/mcms.