Time Is the Greatest Challenge to Teaching STEM. Families Can Help.
For 14 years, Julia Moak, a fifth grade science teacher in Miami, has switched on the lights in her classroom at the start of every school day. An unnoticeable moment, you might think, but Ms. Moak smiles every time she does it, delighted by the science behind the simple task.
The light flooding her room makes her visualize a placid reservoir with a dam at one end, where a turbine converts the kinetic energy of water into mechanical energy. A generator then converts it into electrical energy, which rapidly moves through power lines and into her classroom, converting to light energy. Voila!
Ms. Moak’s goal is to ignite a similar passion in her students so that they can see the magic of STEM in their everyday lives—and thereby be motivated to pursue a job in a STEM field.
However, like many teachers across the country, she faces a serious obstacle to accomplishing her goal.
Ms. Moak’s schedule only allows for science two and a half hours per week. “In addition to time constraints, we’re limited in how much homework we can assign,” she recently told me. “We have to allot most of the time to math.”
Ms. Moak is not alone. Many teachers struggle giving science instruction its due. In fact, the 2018 National Study of Science and Mathematics Education reported that many elementary school teachers do not even provide science instruction every week. According to the National Science Teachers Association Position Statement, “Elementary science instruction often takes a back seat to math and reading and receives little time in the school day.”
An engineer by training, I wanted to learn more about the solutions available to help teachers like Ms. Moak navigate the challenge of time so that they can engage and inspire their students to pursue STEM opportunities. I spoke with experts who talked about the importance of increasing exposure to STEM, but who also spoke about a surprising, untapped resource for both inspiring kids and compensating for lost time in the classroom.
Why Care About STEM?
There are many reasons to care about STEM. One of the biggest is our future. According to Out Teach, the nonprofit behind the #SAVEScience campaign, STEM jobs have grown six times faster than non-STEM jobs in the last decade, and these jobs carry double the median salary.
Talia Milgrom-Elcott, co-founder and executive director of 100Kin10, a nonprofit devoted to supporting STEM teachers told me: “Many of the most important—and most contentious— issues of our time, from climate change to AI, require STEM. We need talented young people, both girls and boys, and from all backgrounds, to be grappling with and solving these problems.”
Brian Carter, a former Program Officer at the Overdeck Family Foundation(a funder of my organization, PowerMyLearning) says exposure to STEM is especially important for students in under-resourced communities: “Students imagine scientists to be white, middle-class, male, and ‘brainy,’ which is, for many, not who they see when they look in the mirror. Exposure to science not only changes a child’s understanding of his or her own identity, but impacts learning and career trajectories.”
Bringing Families Onboard
If STEM is so important, how can we give students more exposure to it?
I was surprised to learn from Linda Kekelis, an education researcher and advisor for the STEM NEXT Opportunity Fund, that parents are one of the biggest influences on kids’ interest and persistence in STEM. Parents can not only spark a new interest in STEM, they can also encourage their kids to pursue a pathway to a related career.
As part of her job, Kekelis talks to parents and investigates STEM-related programs that focus on engaging families. From these experiences she writes about opportunities along with lessons learned and challenges with family engagement in the hopes of empowering more families and promoting equity in STEM.
One of the challenges she has seen is that a lot of parents are intimidated by STEM. When advising organizations that engage parents, Kekelis encourages them to address this fear right away. She shares the research that shows parents don’t need to be experts in the science or engineering content themselves in order to help their children learn. They can play different roles like asking questions or encouraging their child to show and talk about their interests. She says a good starting point is to ask parents what they are already doing and show them connections to STEM. “It does not have to be robotics, 3D printers or coding. Sewing, cooking or repairing household items can teach the same tinkering and making concepts.”
Making Science Come Alive
The New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), a hands-on kids’ science museum, also believes parents are important for STEM. They recently launched a parent ambassador program that empowers parents to take on an active role as they learn STEM alongside their children. Rather than having parents “sit at the sidelines,” parents explore STEM with their children and feel a deeper connection with them as a result.
President and CEO Margaret Honey said, “We don’t get parents involved by telling them: ‘This is why this is good for your child.’ Instead, we ask, ‘What did you see your child doing? What do you think they were experiencing?’”
This past school year, my organization, PowerMyLearning, partnered with NYSCI to “learn from the best” how to develop standards-aligned Family Playlists. These playlists require students to explain concepts to family members, helping to make science come alive for everyone. We then rolled out new science playlists for teachers to use throughout the school year.
In Ms. Moak’s class, 93 percent of her students eligible for free-and-reduced-priced lunch and 37 percent are English language learners. For her, Family Playlists were appealing because she could reach all of her families through their phones in their language of choice. Plus, the playlists worked flexibly with her existing curriculum and, because students had to teach their families science concepts at home, they were engaging and rigorous. “By having students ‘teach’ their families, students develop a deeper understanding of the material,” she said.
Her favorite playlist had students teaching their families by walking through their homes together to identify different forms of energy transfer. Examples they found included a blender converting electrical energy to sound energy; and a toaster converting electrical energy into thermal energy.
Ms. Moak was excited to see comments from parents such as: “I loved this activity. It refreshed my memory and motivated my child to investigate.”
But we still have more work to do. Learning from Kekelis that so many parents are afraid of STEM made me wonder if we could do more to draw in those parents who are most fearful and help them feel comfortable and excited to learn.
After talking to so many people working to engage students in STEM, I am convinced that we can inspire the next generation of innovators, despite the challenge of time. The trick is to enlist families as a resource for inspiring kids and compensating for lost time in the classroom. By doing so, we can help students everywhere become just as passionate about STEM as Ms. Moak, who loves to remind us that, “Science isn’t just what you get in a book; science is everywhere.
“You observe it without even realizing it,” she says. “You see it when your parents are cooking. You see it when there’s a rainstorm. You see it when you plug in a lamp. You see science all the time.”