Address 3 Challenges to Teaching STEM as an International Educator

To many educators, the distilling down of content into its core ideas is as critical as connecting the curriculum to students' lives, which I discussed in my last blog post. Since the 1990s, teaching (science in particular) pedagogy has evolved from the memorization of facts and factoids to the philosophy that “less is more.” Increased focus on critical and higher-level thinking skills have replaced the rote memorization of unconnected and less-than-essential information.

On that note, here are three key challenges that must be addressed in schools when it comes to teaching STEM. Often, their answers are elusive or not definitive. However, examining these challenges is essential to establish a pragmatic foundation upon which a STEM program will be constructed.

Challenge #1: Resistance to Change

Consider the ease of access that most of our students have to the world’s digital libraries. With unlimited information literally at their fingertips, this pedagogical shift is common sense. Yet, it is not unanimously embraced. This is especially true at traditional learning institutions outside the U.S., whose historic content-dense approach retains preeminence. Practices need to evolve. Today, this philosophical inertia is not only contrary to contemporary pedagogy but also counterintuitive to the needs of the 21st-century workforce.

This resistance to change is also somewhat endemic at the high school level. Within this grade band, teachers often envision themselves as the purveyors of knowledge. As a result, some may limit their responsibility to imparting what they know to their students. Modest attention and time are devoted to the students’ development of higher thinking skills and to the practices or processes of scientists and engineers. Often, their teaching style mirrors the same dated approach that they themselves were exposed to during their university years. To challenge their traditional teaching style may be viewed as somewhat of an attack on their sense of self.

Challenge #2: Assessments

Assessments are also key to implementation changes. Often, this can become a cart-before-the-horse quandary. Testing must transform to reflect what is being taught in the classroom. If tests remain bogged down in the granularity of fact memorization, they are poor indicators of success in the contemporary STEM classroom.

As a strategy to best meet this assessment challenge, many schools opt to change curricula in only a few key grades at a time. The specific grade selection is often based upon the schedule of standardized testing. Changes are implemented at grade levels that are not subjected to these evaluations. This allows schools to better assess the impact of change as well as offer a window for the development and implementation of newer, relevant assessments.

Challenge #3: Limited Sources

Independent of specific difficulties that arise, the most significant challenges to STEM initiatives across the globe emerge from limited sources. Change demands an investment in time and money. Programs need to be revamped. Lessons need to evolve. Labs need to be restocked. And most importantly, teachers need to be trained! Without this ongoing support, a STEM program will never attain its full potential.

From the successes I have observed, the first step toward this goal is to fully understand what is meant by STEM education. An agreed-upon definition by all stakeholders is essential to moving ahead. Decision makers need to appreciate the wide-ranging potential for this change, as well as establish practical boundaries and realistic goals. Where should the school be next year? In five years? What subjects will be involved? How will coordination and ongoing communication be established across disciplines and grade levels?  Is there funding to support such a change? Is there “buy-in” by all interested parties? How will these changes impact assessment?

These questions are significant. Only after critical argument and the investment of sufficient time in understanding STEM education can an effective and integrated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics program be best implemented in any school, anywhere around the globe.

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Learn how to bring STEM to any lesson by checking out our International STEM Academy Professional Learning Courses, available for educators outside the U.S.