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April 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 7
ASCD Champions in Education

STEM Instruction Can Be a Change Agent!

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STEM instruction that elevates purpose can be world-changing.

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STEM Instruction Can Be a Change Agent!
My first encounter with STEM education was in 2005, when I began my teacher preparation program at Clemson University. Over the years, I’ve had various experiences with STEM, and have been involved with summer STEM camps. As I’ve learned more about STEM in the context of middle grades mathematics education, I’ve realized the impact a STEM approach could have on developing the skills and critical thinking students need for life—and its potential to make math feel accessible to more ­students.
By “a STEM approach” I mean encouraging deep thought from students to draw connections between the instructional practice and their learning. A STEM approach goes beyond teaching students procedures and embeds an appreciation and deep understanding of the concepts being presented.
STEM instruction can be a change agent in education. But if STEM content isn’t presented in a manner that ­demonstrates a purpose in what students are learning, we risk such instruction losing its impact.

Math Shouldn’t Be a Barrier

We need to help students see mathematics, specifically, as a doorway instead of a barrier. In many of my teaching ­experiences, I highlighted STEM as a gateway to ­engineering careers, with math being a prerequisite. Sadly, some students perceived math as a barrier to ­pursuing such ­engineering careers. Even though STEM-connected projects like building a model bridge or a solar oven intrigued learners, to many, the math skills required for more advanced work in STEM made following that path feel out of reach.
It’s especially important to me that the benefits of STEM instruction reach all students. My career has centered on equitable instructional practices. I long to see every child engage in learning in a way that lets them see the future they want for themselves, instead of the one society has prescribed to them. This desire was behind my work in 2011 to help develop the Motivation~Vision~Promise (MVP) program at South ­Carolina’s Blythewood Middle School. The program aimed to expose more students of color to Algebra I in the 8th grade (as well as help more of them go further in the ELA curriculum).
My colleagues and I designed this program for 8th graders who weren’t recommended by their 7th grade teachers for Algebra I, but who had grades and test scores that proved they could find success in accelerated classes. The two classes we taught, along with daily tutoring and quarterly Saturday sessions, supported students in mastering algebra by presenting new challenges that connected the skills they had learned throughout middle school. Twelve years later, the program is still going strong and every year, all participating ­students pass the Algebra I ­end-of-course exam.

A STEM approach goes beyond teaching students procedures and embeds an appreciation and deep understanding of the concepts being presented.

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The Power of Data Science Instruction

I’ve seen new possibilities for STEM instruction—when integrated with data science—to increase students’ sense of purpose and relevance in what they’re learning. Working as a research scientist with the Atlanta University Center (AUC) Data Science Initiative has opened my eyes to how instruction in data science elevates purpose. Data science is a multi­disciplinary field that involves extracting insights, knowledge, and meaning from large volumes of structured and unstructured data. It encompasses techniques like data visualization, machine learning, and statistical modeling to extract valuable ­information and make data-driven ­decisions. While teaching 6th grade at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, I saw the potential of teaching data science when I incorporated the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election results in a lesson on adding and subtracting whole numbers. Through that lesson, my students demonstrated a high level of understanding of data science concepts that supported the ­importance of voting during all election cycles.
With this lesson, they recognized themselves as Georgians and as members of the community who could use data analysis to understand voting processes. In the years following, I created more lessons that let students engage with math in relation to real-life situations, often involving data science concepts—and at times reinforcing students’ role as citizens who use math for civic action.

STEM Educators— Keep Evolving!

STEM educators need to understand that major changes regarding the skills needed to strengthen our workforce are upon us. Industries need digitally literate employees who understand how to use data analysis skills to monitor trends. And students need educators who know how to challenge them and present learning experiences that open their minds to their greatest potential. Recent state- and federal-level legislation supports the urgency to improve how students engage with data science and its implications for our future. Therefore, we as educators must be prepared for these shifts while learning from the setbacks experienced during the rollout of the computer science era—a time when schools and districts had limited resources and limited certified teachers to fulfill the expectations for new courses.
Let’s not let that happen with relevant new areas of STEM, especially data science. I say this because data science is something teachers in all content areas can teach. In each discipline, there exists data that enables us to look deeper and to push our students further. Data science encourages us to find the connection between spreading viruses and washing our hands. It allows us to see the math behind decisions like where to position voting polls throughout an area or how to draw school district boundaries. It’s a tool educators can use to elevate our instruction by making lessons, including math lessons, feel purposeful. We could, for instance, use data about the community to write math problems relevant to students’ lives, such as having them compare the prices at the local convenience store to those at large franchise stores and discussing the significance of supporting small businesses. In addition to designing model bridges, students might explore data about an actual local bridge to determine things like how and when repairs are scheduled.
STEM education has the potential to be the catalyst for saving the world, provided we embrace its possibilities. But it will take the united effort of educators across the STEM disciplines to realize how the major changes happening in the world impact our classrooms, our teaching, and our students, and to design instruction in ways that give students the STEM-related skills necessary to respond to those changes.
End Notes

1 The AUC Data Science Initiative. (2023). AUC Data Science for K-12 Listening Session Report.

Natalie Odom Pough is an ASCD Champion in Education and a 2018 Emerging Leader. She is a math teacher at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, a visiting professor of mathematics education at the University of Missouri, and a research ­scientist at the Atlanta University Center Data Science Initiative.

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