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STEM Superheroes

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STEM Superheroes

Superheroes in STEM education - students, educators, parents, and community providers - explain STEM & equity, STEM & Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, and STEM beyond the classroom.

Conversations at the 2015 STEM Summit dug deeply into tough questions facing 21st-century education: How do we do education differently? How do we prepare students – all students – to succeed in fields that advance and morph every day? “We have to prepare students for a future that stretches beyond what we can reliably predict,” said keynote speaker Dr. Mae Jemison, who overcame “blacks don’t do science” and “girls don’t become astronauts” stereotypes to become the first African-American woman in space. She now leads an initiative focused on human interstellar space travel.

That unknown, uncharted future she foresees will require students who can think flexibly, critically, and analytically – skills at the core of the new Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards spotlighted at the Summit. “The standards are pushing everyone – every one – to look at education differently,” says Lisa Heaman, principal at the P-8 West Hills STEM Academy in Bremerton. The high-poverty school is one of Washington STEM’s professional development partners, with teachers modeling equitable, differentiated instructional practices built around the new standards.

Twelve-year-old ICA McCune, part of an onstage Q&A with business leaders, knows first-hand how that differentiated instruction works. The West Hills STEM Academy seventh-grader, who lives in the woods and has no computer or wi-fi at home, has always dreamed of becoming an OB/GYN doctor or nurse, since the time she sat glued to birthing shows on the TLC Channel as a toddler. At age eight, she helped deliver a nephew. But it wasn’t until she met actual practitioners through the school’s real-world partnership program that she realized she’d need to strengthen skills in her hardest subject: math. A dedicated teacher worked with her one-on-one after-hours. “He explained math in a different way, so I could understand it more,” she said. “It clicked somehow.”

Finding fresh solutions to STEM education was paramount for the 375 participants who gathered at the Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond for the sold-out fourth annual Summit on December 1. The record crowd included educators, business representatives, policymakers, politicians, community leaders, museum professionals, and others eager to help build what Washington STEM CEO Patrick D’Amelio called the best “ecosystem that can advance STEM education,” from early learning to higher education.

He pointed to the developing Tacoma STEM Network, one of Washington STEM’s ten statewide Networks, as an example of successful innovation. In 2010, Tacoma School District’s graduation rates were 55 percent. The district was on the cover of USA Today as one of the nation’s “dropout factories.” Community members – including mayors, ex-superintendents, business leaders, educators, and religious leaders – got together to figure out what to do. “We said, we need to do something different, to think outside of district policies and have some collective approach to graduating more of our students, particularly our students of color,” said Tafona Ervin, director of collective action for the Foundation for Tacoma Students.

Putting “collective action networks” to work, they aligned STEM goals from the classroom with a diversity of activities outside the school. “As of the 2015 graduating class, we surpassed the state average of 77 percent. We had 78 percent of our students graduating from Tacoma,” said Ervin. “Our goal is to have an 85 percent graduation rate by 2020.”

Conversations on “how to do this differently” drove collective problem-solving sessions, new to the STEM Summit this year. The sessions teamed up participants from a mix of fields: engineers sat next to school administrators; community leaders next to businessmen; and teachers next to city officials. Team conversations were intense, and the ideas emerging from them were often frank and challenging.

Also “doing things differently” is Jackson High School student Sriharshita Musunuri, who participated in the student/business Q&A. She asked panelists “How do you go from an idea to a product?” It’s precisely what she wants to do, pursuing her interest in interdisciplinary engineering. “I’d like to be able to take a product the entire way, go from the idea, to developing it, to experimenting it, to coming up with a solution, then perfecting it, then commercializing it.”

The 15-year-old is part of an experimental “flipped” classroom at her high school. She does her textbook lessons and reading at home then comes to school to put what she has learned to work in problem-solving discussions and projects guided by the teacher. “It’s very different than what we have done in the past. It took getting used to,” she said. “But it fits me better.”

Sriharshita Musunuri has the benefit of supportive parents, including a mother who was a mathematics teacher in India and a father who is a software development engineer. Her father is impressed with an American education system that allows students opportunities for exploration. “This is an aspect schools are providing here which is not something I would have been able to do in India when I was studying.”

He left the 2015 Summit encouraged by the collective wealth of ideas in play. “I hope that what you are doing here actually gets in the classroom,” he said. “That is what I hope.”

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