2014-11-28 / Front Page

STEM program prepared for Next Gen

Plan would provide science, technology, engineering and math foundation for kindergarten students in RSU 21
By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK – Select teachers and administrators in Regional School Unit 21 are formalizing a comprehensive science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program to be presented in conjunction with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The program would provide kindergarten-age students with foundational knowledge that would build on itself each year and culminate in a full-scale project during their senior year of high school.

Assistant Superintendent Katie Hawes, along with STEM Coordinators Sheila Wells, Alan Carp and Evan Chase, who is a STEM teacher at Middle School of the Kennebunks, are working to make the concept a reality.

The longitudinal program would coincide with the Next Generation Science Standards. The NGSS were drafted by individual states and reflect a nationwide effort to refine how science and engineering are taught and learned in the classroom.

“K-12 science education should reflect the interconnected nature of science as it is practiced and experienced in the real world,” according to the NGSS appendix released in April of 2013. The NGSS encourages involvement by students in all grades in three tenets: “science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas.”

Like the longitudinal STEM program, NGSS builds on knowledge gleaned at each grade level.

“The progressions in the NGSS automatically assume that previous material has been learned by the student … ,” according to the appendix. “What this means to teachers and curriculum developers is that the same ideas or details are not covered each year. Rather, a progression of knowledge occurs from grade band to grade band that gives students the opportunity to learn more complex material, leading to an overall understanding of science by the end of high school.”

Because most RSU 21 teachers have been working with the STEM model for some time, adopting a longitudinal program and adhering to NGSS will not require a substantial shift in curriculum.

“I think these will be less new to our teachers than teachers in other schools who haven’t been working with the STEM model so far,” Hawes said.

Wells said he has wanted to bridge the gap in consistency between schools and students at all age levels since RSU 21 formed in 2009. “Since our consolidation to form the RSU, we’ve really been trying to get equity and consistency between grade levels.” The NGSS, Wells said, “will help us pull that a little tighter.”

Hawes said, for an educator, what’s appealing about the NGSS, like the controversial Common Core standards, is that they leave room for flexibility and creativity in the classroom.

“The important thing to remember about the NGSS standards (is that) the way teachers get to them is different. We’re just saying these are the areas that need to be taught in this grade level in order to have a clear standard of learning,” she said. “How you (teachers) choose to get to them is the art of teaching.”

The noticeable shift toward STEM in the last few years in the district is indicative of a concerted national effort to push realworld science, technology and engineering in the classroom. Teachers and administrators throughout the district are cognizant of this shift.

“What’s that statistic? Something like 70 percent of jobs that kids will be going in to once they graduate are in engineering,” Wells said.

Concerns have been voiced that the shift towards STEM could eclipse humanities, but Carp said educators have been proactive in that regard. When he and other administrators were finalizing the requirements for the highest STEM certificate achievable for graduating seniors, there was a deliberate effort to “leave room for humanities.

“We were very careful in how we designed it,” Carp said, and nine slots will be available for humanities in the highest STEM certificate.

To begin the acclimation to NGSS for teachers within the district, a handful of early-release days are reserved in February “to help grade-level teams to understand the Next Generation Science Standards and then look at how that maps curriculum,” Hawes said. She also used the term “vertical alignment” to describe cross-grade and cross-school curriculum cohesion.

Much of the STEM curriculum already fulfills the NGSS standards, Carp said, which makes transitioning to a longitudinal program easier. In reference to the high school STEM curriculum,

“The majority of this is already being done. As far as the changes that are going to be made, (they’re) really minimal,” Carp said. Implementing a longitudinal program at the elementary and middleschool levels is the more daunting undertaking, Carp said.

Although it is still in the early stages of development, the intent and requirement of a longitudinal STEM program would be to create something relevant, such as an electric car or an energy efficient mechanism. A project of that caliber would illustrate applicability and demonstrate that knowledge has transferred to skill. The project also has to be “challenging enough that it will take four years to complete,” but not something so complicated that students graduate and leave their project unfinished, Carp said.

It is unclear how much input the students will have in choosing their project. If next year’s kindergarteners become the first class to pilot a longitudinal STEM project, the first completed project is about a decade away if they finish the program around 2030.

Whether implemented in the 2015 or 2016 school year, it will be a pilot program. Generally, because pilot programs are often more precarious because they are new, they are not likely to receive district or state funding. Funding would likely come from an outside source, like the Education Foundation of the Kennebunks, said Carp. After the first few years, or “once it becomes part of our regular work” the program will probably be included in the district’s operating budget, Hawes said.

A formal presentation to the RSU 21 board of directors is set for Monday, Dec. 15.

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