“That’s it! I’m digging in!”
With that, a third grader at Griggs Elementary in Mobile, Ala., pulled on his surgical glove to examine an owl pellet for rodent bones.
Engaging explorations in STEM content are daily occurrences for the young mathematicians and scientists-in-training at Griggs and other schools throughout the state of Alabama. Here, students benefit from rigorous, hands on, investigative science and math instruction provided through a partnership with the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative, or AMSTI. This state-funded initiative partners with K-12 schools to ramp up the integration of STEM education at the elementary school level.
On the day we visited schools in Alabama, while one class at Griggs examined owl pellets, another room of students focused on the importance of fractions in math by examining strategies for dividing a paper “brownie” square into equal parts. In a classroom at J. Larry Newton Elementary School in Fairhope, students discussed the importance of measurement precision as they performed chemical tests on household substances like baking soda and flour.
Outfitted in goggles and gloves, the students owned the roles they took on in class and told us about their futures. “I love math” and “I’m going to be a scientist” were common statements among these young children.
What was so remarkable was that throughout these classrooms, the students conducted much of their own learning and challenged each other with questions. The teachers were the facilitators, not lecturers, who nurtured and compelled their students to be risk takers, critical thinkers, and data analysts. Students were encouraged to be curious and that curiosity was used as the natural foundation for the lessons. Said one teacher, “I used to be one of those lecturers, but now…I see my students’ excitement, and I’m excited to facilitate.”
These partnerships illustrate effective math and science instruction, accomplished through authentic experiences that allow students to take the lead in discovery and learning. Across grade levels, these elementary school students are engaging in scientific and mathematical discourse, defending their hypotheses, explaining their thinking, and examining their strategies.
Schools across the country could benefit from such educational experiences and instructional practices. As the Teaching Ambassador Fellows continue to conduct outreach with educators in schools across the nation, we’ve seen pockets of best practices like these in Alabama. But if our country is going to meet the President’s goals and the needs of the economy, this type of system-wide partnership and STEM instruction must become more of the norm. Early exposure to and experience with STEM is critical to fostering future STEM professionals. Given the national priority and importance of early childhood education, we must also start thinking about how to begin such exploration early, even in pre-school and kindergarten.
In Alabama, math and science is being done the right way. Let’s learn from this example and build more.
Jennifer Bado-Aleman is an English teacher on loan from her school in Gaithersburg, Md., and Patrice Dawkins-Jackson is the Gifted Instructional Support teacher at the Dunwoody Springs Elementary in the Greater Atlanta area. Both are serving as 2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellows for the Department.