STEM seems to be everywhere these days. To most, the acronym stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. In Sandwich, the buzzword has an additional, slightly different, meaning:
STrategies for Engaging Minds.
What are those strategies? Basically, it boils down to something educators call inquiry- or project-based learning, with a healthy dose of the technology that pervades modern life.
At the heart of Sandwich's STEM initiative is a new STEM Academy. As of next September, Sandwich's seventh and eighth graders will move from the district's K-8 schools to a wing of the high school to be known as the STEM Academy. As one might expect, students will be equipped with iPads and offered courses like robotics and architecture. But there will also be the standard English and social studies classes, plus extra art offerings and even Chinese.
What really differentiates the STEM Academy from a traditional middle school, according to director Gil Newton, is the fact that, regardless of the topic, the emphasis will be on collaboration and inquiry - students formulating questions, finding ways to answer them, and sharing what they learn with others. In other words, the scientific method is transformed into a way of learning, rather than subject matter to be taught.
Some Sandwich students and teachers are getting a preview of both the demands and rewards of inquiry-based learning this year with Climate Lab, a hands-on science project developed by Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Wildlands Trust, and curriculum developer TERC. This spring, students will lay out a study site and begin tracking the blooming and growth of plants. As with virtually all climate science, Climate Lab draws on mathematics, physical sciences, and biology. And, just like real scientists, students will be asked to compare their results to those of other students and past scientific studies.
If it sounds like a great way to learn, it is. At least, it is, when it's done well. And therein lies the rub. For multi-disciplinary, inquiry-based learning to succeed, teachers need to align projects with required curriculum elements, coordinate activities between multiple classrooms, and keep tabs on the independent work of students. It's not easy.
Brian Drayton, Director of the Center for School Reform at TERC and an inquiry-based learning expert, says we've known for over a century that inquiry is the ideal model for education. But the demands on teachers have led to a checkered history for the method. Gil Newton says the Sandwich school district is providing teacher training and will give STEM Academy teachers dedicated collaborative planning time in hopes of turning their experiment in inquiry-based learning into a success story.