Through STEM Initiative, teachers allow students to apply what they learn

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Last weeks STEM training and fair at Tualatin High School was one step toward a teaching approach that is more hands-on and student-centered.“But, when am I ever going to use this?” students constantly ask teachers when learning about concepts such as inertia and circumference and the Pythagorean Theorem. The answer is maybe never, but also, maybe always — the only way to find out is to actually learn how to apply the concepts.

That’s exactly what the Oregon Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Initiative is trying to do. Through this program, which is passed down from the federal level, teachers from elementary through secondary education learn new ways to teach the applications of challenging subjects. The idea is to be engaging and to involve businesses and the community in the process, giving students a well-rounded view and understanding of what the lessons look like in real life. Tualatin High School is part of the South Metro-Salem STEM Partnership, which includes 15 school districts and 125,000 students.

“Looking back on my education from a young person’s perspective, when you get to ‘do,’ not only does it catch your attention more, but you get to learn it better. It engages your mind more,” said Jill Hubbard, STEM network director and technology teacher at Tualatin High School. “Teaching is changing. It used to be more of we were the information person. But now with the Internet age, the information is out there. It’s more about what’s valid and useful information, and how do I apply that information? This type of STEM approach gives people the opportunity to do that.”

This means that teachers can teach many of the same lessons they’ve always taught, but the presentation will change. Instead of doing problems on repeat out of a textbook, students will learn the concepts while also learning skills such as presenting, problem solving, collaboration and career awareness.

“One of the great things is having children recognize the skills that are necessary for the jobs that are out there. So many kids in second and third grade are already thinking ‘I’m gonna be a teacher when I grow up’ or ‘I want to do what my dad does,’” said Sonia Lulay, Metzger Elementary School teacher and STEM leader. “I don’t want them to be pin-holed at second or third grade. (I want to) keep their minds open.”

Last week, TuHS hosted a STEM training and fair that both taught teachers how to begin incorporating STEM practices in the classroom and brought in business leaders to learn about what their involvement could be. A major goal with involving businesses is to learn what the students’ potential future employers look for when hiring; instead of teaching to the test, they’re teaching to the future.

“(Business leaders) need people to fill jobs, and they’re not getting the people out of the pipeline who have the skills necessary to hire,” Hubbard said. “Some teachers perhaps went from college to teaching, so they didn’t have the opportunity to work in an applied way. So, their strengths are in the theory, whereas the business strengths are in the application. When you merge them, there’s a lot of bang for the buck there.”

While teaching teachers a new way of approaching lessons will take time, energy and resources, those behind STEM feel it is essential to help more students succeed in school and beyond. The hope is not only that they’ll get a better education, but that in doing so, they will learn invaluable life and career skills in the process.

“I think long-term wise, keeping students engaged, getting them excited about learning, looking at the world and asking questions, and doing that where they drive the curriculum, making it more student-centered and not all teacher-powered is the key to this,” said Lulay. “Every teacher’s goal is just creating lifelong learners, and I think teaching in this way will enable that for sure.”

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