STEM education: primary STEM showcase

Rachel Winning outlines the primary STEM showcase conference.

Image: Rachelle Winning, Assistant Principal, Gymea Bay Public School, was a member of the NSW Department of Education’s STEM education advisory team in 2016.

STEM education is an integrated approach to the learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The focus is on deepening student understanding and developing creative and critical thinking skills within an authentic context.

The Primary STEM Project 2016 culminated in a showcase conference in November 2016, bringing together the project schools from across NSW to share how they embraced STEM learning within their school or community of schools with a wider audience of teachers and educators.

Each school began this project with varying levels of understanding, experience and expertise, and with the set purpose of implementing quality learning experiences using project-based learning strategies and improving student learning through pedagogical change.

This project incorporated supporting teacher pedagogy in several areas including:

* inquiry-based learning

* working mathematically

* working scientifically

* working technologically.

It often challenged teachers' notions of planning and programming, particularly with regard to designing real, authentic and contextual learning experiences that engaged the students and allowed the students to drive their learning. Making connections across the NSW Mathematics K-10 syllabus and NSW Science K-10 (Incorporating Science and Technology K-6 syllabus), and focusing design thinking methods to develop problems and design solutions was key to implementing STEM successfully.

An interesting article, Learning creatively with STEM by Chris Hopkins, Principal, Scarborough Public School, appears in Scan, Volume 35, Issue 4. Chris discussed how he has implemented STEM principles and authentic learning at his school and was a participant of the Primary STEM Project 2016.

This article will focus on two project schools and their STEM journey, from their starting point of identifying the needs to be addressed, developing a driving question that would enable them to focus on the needs of staff and students, and highlighting the processes they undertook to implement sustainable STEM learning within their school.

Crabbes Creek Public School - How can we ensure our school is bee friendly?

Crabbes Creek Public School is a small school of 37 students on the Far North Coast of NSW. The school is well known for its creative and caring students and its balanced approach to education. Crabbes Creek is part of the Fingal Head Community of Schools, which participated in the Stage 3 STEM Project, 2016. Their driving question looked at why STEM education was important for their students and what they could do to support the future focused learning needs of their students. Initially, they formed an action team and the schools met as a community of schools (CoS) group and participated in quality professional learning that would bring about sustainable change in pedagogy.

Belinda Eadsforth teaches the Year 3-6 class at Crabbes Creek Public School and was new to STEM and project-based learning in 2016. Belinda and 16 of her amazing students presented their STEM journey at the Showcase Conference. They had a captive audience while explaining the highs and lows of their STEM journey. Belinda inspired everyone with her honesty about embarking on an unexpected journey into STEM and problem-based learning. Her students also impressed with their presentation about how it impacted on their learning in this small country school.

Belinda spoke about the initial process of brainstorming with students the ideas they were interested in learning about and, after voting, wrote the driving question:

Is Crabbes Creek Public School a bee friendly environment? How can we as students ensure that we are doing our part in helping the survival of bees? Why is it important?

Belinda explained how writing a driving question posed learning challenges for them to explore and included explicit teaching. The idea of a 'non-googleable question' is an interesting and important notion for students to understand.

It was evident from the presentation that there was high student engagement in this project, which encouraged student autonomy in a student led classroom. The multidisciplinary approach to learning enabled students to pursue their areas of interest.

One unexpected benefit was the new connections to their community, from a bee enthusiast to a local resident with a beehive, who is now a frequent visitor to the school.

Image: A local beekeeper shares his knowledge with the students

Accustomed to programming and organising resources during the holidays for a ten week unit, Belinda acknowledged the fact that this approach challenged her traditional teaching style. Her honesty in describing her fear of moving into the unknown, not having a plan and not knowing what the result would be was refreshing and reflected the concerns of many teachers in the audience. Listening to her describe how the learning evolved, the strong connections to mathematics, science and technology throughout the process, and her concerns about programming and assessing student learning were powerful and challenging messages for all teachers.

St Ives North Public School – the Firestorm Project

St Ives North Public School is located in the leafy north shore of the Sydney metropolitan area adjoining the Ku-ring-gai National Park and has a proud tradition of academic excellence. It has a diverse student population of over 770 and values strong partnerships with the community.

Students from St Ives North co-presented with their teachers at the conference, giving a real sense of validity to their project. As their school is located in a bushland setting, the impact of bushfires is an authentic issue for the students and the local community. Based on an authentic local area scenario, the students’ developed the driving question:

How can the community of St Ives prepare for, survive or recover from a catastrophic bushfire event?’

Teachers explored the fundamental question with the students through open-ended problem solving strategies, which included the five elements of the design thinking process:

* empathise

* define

* ideate

* prototype

* test.

This process highlighted the frequency of students discussing and debating alternatives when they grappled with the many aspects of problematic knowledge within the design process. Students were encouraged to work collaboratively in small groups with a design, create and develop focus. During this process, teachers guided the learning and observed student interactions.

Their project had an authentic audience which culminated in the successful school STEM Firestorm Project showcase with the attendance of NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner and community members.

It was interesting to hear how there was a dramatic shift in pedagogical change. Particularly relevant was the underlying notion that working mathematically, working scientifically and working technologically are natural and essential components of authentic STEM learning. It highlighted student ownership over their learning – they supported and critically observed other students, and made real connections with their learning. It was evident that students are confident and articulate, can demonstrate deep knowledge and can make strong connections between concepts. Most importantly, the engagement and excitement in learning was at the forefront through this STEM initiative.

Feedback from conference attendees included:

The Firestorm project was relevant to the local community and students had produced amazing results.

Technology was used wisely by students in innovative ways – not just gadgets for the sake of gadgets.

Teachers had drawn on community experts to be involved and the end results were astounding.

Where to from here?

The application of quality, effective learning experiences within the STEM disciplines of science, technology, mathematics and engineering and the empowerment of teachers to design, implement and evaluate innovative practice targeting student needs is critical to ensuring successful and sustainable STEM learning in our schools. It is about engaging and equipping students and embracing new technologies to support 21st century learning in real and authentic contexts.

References and further reading

Education Council (COAG) 2015, National STEM School Education Strategy 2016-2026. A comprehensive plan for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in Australia, accessed 28 February 2017.

Hopkins, C. 2016, ‘Learning creatively with STEM’, Scan, vol. 35, no.4, pp 17-19, accessed 28 February 2017.

The STEM education advisory team 2016, ‘STEM education: the story so far’, Scan, vol. 35, no. 2, pp 5-10, accessed 28 February 2017.

NSW Department of Education 2016, STEMscience, technology, engineering and mathematics, accessed 28 February 2017.

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