Teacher Forum Talks: NGSS, the Meaning of STEM, and Resources

100Kin10 Teacher Forum members gathered virtually in November to discuss what they had heard from their peers during recent Listening Sessions. Members discussed several topics, a few of which stood out as most resonant across the group: the implementation of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), what it means to teach STEM, and the ongoing need for resources and communication.

How do we teach to NGSS?
Many teachers are hungry for help teaching the Next Generation Science Standards. They are often unclear about where to find quality resources and what “good” NGSS-aligned teaching looks like. In many cases, they are unable to turn to their administrators for help, as many administrators lack knowledge and training in what NGSS teaching “should” look like and how to support teachers to teach to the standards. The challenges deepen when parents become confused and concerned about how their child is learning science (it is so different from their science classroom!) and administrators struggle to explain the rationale for this new approach to science learning. 

Other teachers who have received quality NGSS-focused professional development are faced with a different challenge. Alongside learning new methods of teaching aligned with the new standards, they are also expected to bring back what they learned to colleagues at their school. These often look like one-off, piecemeal trainings that are too disconnected to adequately support real professional learning or actual change in instructional practice. Teachers in these schools are eager for the opportunity to move beyond these disjointed (occasionally even inchoate) trainings and to engage deeply and collaboratively as a school community in exploring how to effectively teach NGSS. These stories remind us of the experiences many teachers had when faced with teaching to the Common Core Math standards.

“It is hard to know who knows what NGSS is supposed to look like. I think teachers want to hear that they are doing well or how they could make adjustments from somebody who has it all figured out.”

What does it mean to be a STEM teacher?
There is little agreement on what STEM means and who is a part of the STEM community. Some teachers feel that STEM is merely another word for science, overlooking the importance of the other elements of STEM. Math teachers feel this exclusive definition of STEM the most acutely, leaving some to question if math is even a part of the STEM community. This came through strongly when one Forum member shared that the math teachers at her Listening Session in San Francisco noted that the focus on tech in Silicon Valley diminishes the importance of math.

Other teachers believe STEM expands beyond science and that students would benefit from cross-curricular STEM lessons. One teacher explained how he sees STEM as the application of science and math within the context of the other.  Another teacher explained that she views cross-curricular STEM as a pedagogical approach: “Strategies That Engage Minds.”

“Looking at STEM as a sliding scale – where I am an expert in my subject while implementing the other pieces – helps me take a step toward STEM...As a seventh-grade science teacher, I know math, but teaching math is not my expertise. However, using math in science lenses, I can point to its importance.”

Regardless of how teachers view themselves in the context of STEM, nearly all shared a dedication to high-quality teaching and discussed their role in empowering students to drive their own learning. One teacher noted how he provides an equitable and personalized learning environment through project-based learning:

“When I start to give my kids more flexible, project-based work that mirrors what real scientist and engineers are doing, I allow them to push the class in a particular direction...I think that flexibility is an asset that allows my kids to play to their strengths and allows me to learn more about my kids and the awesome nuances about them. This lends itself to providing equitable experiences for the kids in my classes.” 

How can we get more resources for STEM?
Similar to our previous calls, teachers continue to want more time and funds to bring high-quality STEM into their classrooms. They need time to collaborate with peers, to attend professional development, and to experiment with new approaches in the classroom. Time is not the only inadequate resource; in so many cases, teachers also lack STEM-focused dollars, both to buy supplies for their classrooms and to access training to deepen their STEM instruction. Many look to grants to fill the gaps, but too often schools are left making the unfair choice between purchasing materials for classrooms and providing professional development to teachers. Understanding that hours and dollars can’t magically appear, teachers suggested solution-focused communication with administrators to address the issue of time and money management.

“I wonder how we could encourage more open dialogue between teacher, school leaders, and district leaders. It seems difficult to know when to start these conversations because teachers and administrators have so much to do and are exhausted from the trials faced each day.”

This isn't the first time we've heard teachers ask for more time for collaboration and learning. Recognizing this critical need, and building on the Grand Challenges analysis of the highest-leverage areas for change, 100Kin10 is mobilizing our network to address issues related to teachers’ work environments in schools, including the opportunities teachers are providing for collaboration and professional growth. Our “Teachers at Work” report released in the fall of 2018 identifies the opportunities primed for action, and four teams of nearly 30 partners are leading efforts to jointly respond to some of those opportunities in the winter and spring of 2019. Read more about the high-leverage grand challenges here, and stay tuned for updates on the teams on our Grand Challenges site.

The 100Kin10 Teacher Forum is the vehicle that enables 100Kin10 to infuse the priorities and work of the network with what STEM teachers are experiencing “on the ground” in their schools across the country. Members of the Teacher Forum hold listening sessions with their local STEM teaching communities and share back with us what STEM teachers are hearing, seeing, and experiencing in the field.