A teacher in West Garfield Park reads a letter to her class: A waste management company is interested in purchasing vacant land for a garbage dump. The students’ task is to decide what happens next.

In a discussion, they examine potential outcomes from various angles, such as employment opportunities, neighborhood safety, or environmental impact, to understand the costs and benefits. They take on different roles – a local resident, an environmentalist, the company’s CEO – to determine whether or not they support the proposal. Finally, they put their research together to come up with the best solution.

This exercise is one of the “real-world problems” used in the new curriculum at Hefferan Elementary, one of 11 so-called “welcoming schools” that gained a STEM program after last year’s school closings. Beyond teaching the subject content of science, technology, engineering and math, STEM education should be “a shift in instruction,” said Jodi Biancalana, the school’s math and science specialist. 

“More of the thinking is on the learners,” she said. “With real life, authentic situations, students have to do the researching, exploring, experimenting, and come up with the solutions.”

Over the last four years, STEM education has become a priority nation-wide, due to a projected increase in jobs in the field to 8.6 million by 2018. Half of the 7.4 million jobs in 2012 were unfilled.

In 2010, a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology projected a nationwide demand for approximately 25,000 new STEM teachers per year over the following decade.

Yet while young people heading to college report high interest in STEM subjects, there’s far less interest in teaching these subjects: A new report from ACT found that nearly half of 2014 high school graduates who took the ACT said they were interested in a STEM field, but less than 1 percent of those reporting such interest said they planned to teach science or math.

‘Mile wide, inch deep’

The U.S. fares poorly in comparisons of the quality of U.S. math and science education to international counterparts: America ranked 51st among 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Competitiveness Report.

“American science education has long been critiqued for being a mile wide and an inch deep – trying to cover a lot of material and not going [intensively] over the same content,” said Dr. Shaunti Knauth, the director of National Louis University’s Science Excellence through Residency project. “There has been a push for a long time to revisit how we teach science.”

National Louis University was one of 24 schools that in September received a grant from the Teacher Quality Partnership, a federal program that aims to improve the quality of teacher preparation and student learning through partnerships between colleges and schools in high-poverty communities. This year’s competition prioritized applications that focused on STEM education, with the goal of recruiting, training and supporting 11,000 STEM teachers over the next five years.

National Louis University won $8.3 million. Downstate, Illinois State University won $10.1 million.

In partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology, National Louis University will use the grant to figure out how to implement Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in its teacher preparation residency program. Teacher candidates will then take the science curriculum into middle-grades classrooms at Academy for Urban School Leadership schools.

Knauth said the NGSS picks out the central ideas in science and teaches them across several different content areas. Instead of prescribing what students should know, such as the various stages of a water cycle, the standards focus on what students should be able to do, like constructing models that explain cycles.

“NGSS expects teachers will be active in designing the curriculum and implementing it,” she said. “But it’s not fair to ask a biology teacher to incorporate engineering in her classroom without support.”

Even teachers who aren’t trained in the specific subject areas naturally want to engage their students with content that crosses over various curricula, said Biancalana, one of the two STEM coaches at Hefferan. Her job is to help teachers see that they can incorporate science content with teaching practices they’re already using in math or reading. By allowing students to reach their own conclusions about the “right answer,” she has seen more enthusiasm and engagement in the classroom.

“It’s really about creating a new culture for the students where they feel real ownership of the learning,” she said. “Everyone’s voice is important. Participation is important.”

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