STEM: More than the Sum of Its Parts

by RaeAnne Marsh

“Every economic development business conversation gets back to education,” says Darcy Renfro, vice president and coordinator of Science Foundation Arizona’s STEM Initiatives, explaining SFAz’s focus on research and education that can help build a stronger economy in Arizona. That focus has zeroed in on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, with support from such major companies as Freeport-McMoRan. “Now, that’s the majority of what SFAz is doing,” Renfro says.

But STEM, as SFAz defines it, is not those discrete subjects taught through a traditional curriculum; it’s an interdisciplinary approach that combines problem- and project-based education to provide real-world learning for students. “The goal is to help students better understand math and science, and also language arts, in the context of the real world,” says Renfro. Key is its emphasis on helping students solve problems and think critically. In other words, it is both content areas and a way of learning.

Bioscience High School in Downtown Phoenix presents a full immersion program. Students do all project-based, student-led learning, and with local employers and municipal government offices. At Central Phoenix’s Metro Tech High School, it’s a partial immersion — students are doing projects around sustainability, tying cultural arts, horticulture, and construction and design to math and science. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Renfro. Schools can implement STEM education in smaller increments. “Maybe start with an after-school program in specific areas to help teachers and students get used to it.”

SFAz met with educators throughout the state in 2010 and ‘11 and found tremendous interest in the program, according to Renfro. The most common question was, “How can I do it?” Renfro shares. Thanks to a strategic partnership recently announced between SFAz and Helios Education Foundation, grants of up to $500,000 are being made available to schools and districts to implement STEM education curricula in their classrooms. In terms of budget, however, Renfro notes STEM “doesn’t have to need a lot of equipment” and may be achieved with creativity and a reprioritization of existing funds.

Another innovative approach to STEM is coming from the Phoenix Symphony. Recently launched at ASU Preparatory Academy, Mind Over Music integrates music with STEM concepts. For instance, the science of sound waves can be explored by studying how they travel based on the instrument medium and design and how tuning impacts the frequency. Experimenting with appropriate music apps can strengthen technology skills such as analysis and synthesis, creativity, and troubleshooting. Learning how to control sound through musical instruments (acoustics) and inventing and building homemade instruments (anatomy and mechanics) enhance engineering skills. And musical notes and signatures are an expression of mathematics concepts.

“This is the first time any arts organization has worked with schools to create a program to teach STEM subjects,” says Phoenix Symphony CEO Jim Ward. The model is designed to provide quantifiable data on the efficacy of the program, information of great interest to the organization’s corporate sponsors. For the business community, Ward notes, “Education remains an area of key interest [due to] the importance of creating a pipeline for a strong work force.”

Kim Leavitt, director of education, initiated the program based on similar models she created in Tennessee that have been cited by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Governor’s Association as viable learning models for high-risk schools. “… providing a multi-year, in-depth curriculum-based model coupled with the level of evaluation we’re doing requires experienced staff, resources and time. It’s only because the Symphony fully embraces its education mission that we were able to launch Mind Over Music.”

To become the type of work force employers are looking for, students need to be able to think, solve problems and collaborate. “STEM will help in whatever career they choose,” says Renfro, emphasizing it is meant to help students be well-rounded individuals as well as foster future innovators and entrepreneurs. “These are the foundational skills necessary in today’s economy.”

See related article, Educating Our Work Force

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