STEM in the Middle:
How Are Teachers Planning and Implementing Integrated STEM Courses?
by Leah L. Kahn, EdD
As a middle level science teacher for 25 years, I became interested in STEM and the implications it could have for middle level students. Honestly, and this is kind of embarrassing, I had not even heard the "STEM" acronym until I began teaching in higher education in 2010. When I first heard about it, I perhaps naively interpreted STEM to mean teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics as an integrated course. If you do any research on STEM education, you will understand why I used the word "naively." This was exciting to me because the limited experience that I had had with integrating content in my own classroom had been positive, and I had observed increased student engagement when any kind of engineering activity was connected with science content. I was so fascinated with this idea of integrated STEM in the middle school that I decided to write my dissertation on it.
At first, I decided to conduct a case study focusing on one middle school in Texas where STEM was taught as a single course. In other words, students did not have science and math class! they had STEM class. When I began inquiring about how to locate a school like this, one person whom I asked, who is involved in the STEM center at my university, laughed and told me that while she agreed that this is how STEM subjects should be taught, I was ahead of my time. After several more inquiries, and not hearing anything from principals that I emailed, I decided to change my methodology. This led me to conduct a phenomenological narrative study. A phenomenological narrative approach to research provides the researcher a way to explore a real-life occurrence, in depth, in order to better understand it and to answer the how and why questions about the phenomenon. I interviewed eight middle level STEM teachers from Texas, North Carolina, California/ Illinois and Michigan in order to explore how they planned and implemented integrated STEM courses. The criteria used to select each participant included:
Teachers were currently teaching middle school (grades 4-8).
Teachers had at least five years of classroom teaching experience.
Teachers were currently teaching science, technology, engineering and math in an integrated manner.
I conducted interviews with the teachers either through SKYPE video conferencing, face to face, or a phone call. One interview was conducted through a phone call while the teacher was on his way to a Science Olympiad competition, another while she was making dinner for her toddler. These people were super busy! They fit me in whenever they could, and I was grateful for their valuable time. The interviews were based on the following research questions:
What strategies are being utilized by teachers to teach STEM subjects as an integrated course?
How do teachers integrate STEM subjects' standards into the scope and sequence of a course?
How are students in integrated STEM courses assessed?
What are the benefits of teaching integrated STEM courses?
What challenges have teachers encountered when planning and implementing integrated STEM courses?
Narrative inquiry allowed for each teacher to tell their unique story. The study results suggested that many of these teachers felt as though they are pioneers and are forging through as other teachers are resisting and holding on to more traditional instructional methods, One teacher participant remarked, "I'm like a little island," when asked if he planned or co-taught with others. He explained, 'The other science teachers allow me to do the STEM projects until they figure it out." He also pointed out "there are some people who don't readily accept STEM integration." Another teacher participant noted that she was the only eighth grade STEM teacher in her school, so she did not work closely with anyone.
Other findings from this study suggested that the teacher participants were utilizing a wide variety of methods to accomplish an integrated curriculum. Six of the eight participants were not using a purchased, packaged curriculum, and were comprehensively involved in writing curriculum and creating lessons for their courses. Two participants were using a curriculum titled Project Lead the Way, which provided a curriculum and scope and sequence for them to follow. All but one of the teacher participants were actively utilizing project based learning to teach STEM in an integrated way.
Findings also highlighted the high degree of satisfaction that these teachers felt teaching in this way. One of the teacher participants remarked "I think if I weren't teaching this way, I would not be a teacher anymore." Similarly, another said III would quit this profession if I did not have the opportunity to create authentic challenges for the students." Several of the participants expressed concern that STEM education is just another educational trend that will not continue to be funded in the future.
Challenges facing these teachers were numerous! Difficulty in trying to work in all of the STEM subjects' standards into one course was one challenge that came up often in the interviews. Many of the teachers were working with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Several had positive things to say about NGSS because the NGSS incorporates technology, engineering and mathematics concepts with the science objectives. Other challenges included the need for supportive and knowledgeable administration, and time challenges due to the intensity of the work.
In interviewing these eight dedicated individuals, their passion for what they were doing became evident. They all believed that teaching middle level students in this way increased the engagement of their students and made then better problem-solvers and critical thinkers. It was also evident that they faced many challenges as they struggled to figure out the best ways to plan and implement these courses. I hoped that through allowing these teachers to tell their unique stories, educational leaders could begin to better understand this phenomenon and hopefully be more prepared to assist and support them in their endeavors.