These days, discussions about quality education and setting kids up for success invariably include the importance of STEM. But what is STEM? Why does it matter? And how are private schools prioritizing STEM to help students become the leaders, innovators and game-changers of tomorrow in an increasingly information and technology-based world?
The acronym STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” The four core disciplines include countless school subjects from coding and robotics to chemistry, algebra, biology and even economics. STEM learning involves integrated interdisciplinary teaching that makes absorbing information fun and interactive: instead of focusing solely on textbooks, theory and memorization, students immediately put what they’re learning into practice through hands-on experiments, projects and activities.
“What parents should be looking for in a STEM program isn’t what students are learning with, but how they are learning. How are they accessing the curricular content? How are they interacting with others? How much are they able to exercise their curiosities?” says Glen Herbert, the marketing and communications lead at Rosseau Lake College in Rosseau, Ont., where students’ STEM education involves a mandatory canoe trip to help them understand their place in the natural world. “People don’t generally associate canoe trips with STEM,” he says, “but they should, because [canoe] reflect the same set of core outcomes: creativity, collaboration, application, agency.”
Introducing kids to STEM early and then incorporating it throughout their school years allows them the time to explore possibilities, discover new topics and nurture their passions. “STEM programs work to make the sciences inviting, approachable and inspiring,” says Herbert. “They also seek to reorient students’ relationship to science.”
STEM’s inherent “learn by doing” approach not only helps galvanize the subject matter itself, but allows students of all ages to develop complementary, highly transferable life skills, such as problem-solving, reasoning, communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking–all of which are invaluable, both in school and beyond. “It’s one thing to have a good idea, and quite another to explain it effectively to others, and still another to lead a team of collaborators to bring that idea to successful fruition,” Herbert says. “STEM programs require all of those skills.”
In the long term, robust STEM education in elementary and secondary school also sets students up for success in post-secondary academia. “STEM courses are very important, as the fields of science, mathematics and technology offer fantastic possibilities for our students to innovate and make a difference in our world,” says Dr. Mark Lee, deputy head of school at Royal Crown School in Scarborough, Ont. “Pursuit of university majors in these fields presents our students with strong career opportunities in an increasingly competitive global market.”
To that end, and looking even farther afield STEM-related careers–and the need for highly skilled employees–are growing exponentially. It is vital to provide students with a solid STEM foundation on which to build their future and with which they can thrive going forward in all aspects of their lives. “The more students can live those kinds of experiences,” says Herbert, “the better they’ll be prepared for the work environments they’ll move into as professionals.”
When it comes to STEM, each private school is different. Some make it their core focus, while others take a more holistic approach, integrating elements of STEM throughout classes, programs and activities. At Delano Academy in Thornhill, Ont., the “T” of STEM–technology–is the linchpin. A member of Microsoft’s global Showcase School collaborative, Delano embraces a technology-first approach to educating its students. “[Technology] is embedded in how our students learn and how teachers teach in every way,” says Delano Academy’s vice prinicpal, Sharon Levy. “We value future-proofing our students, who use cutting-edge hardware and applications that support the 21st-century learner.” The school also runs the STE(A)M Factory (the “A” stands for “arts”), an incubator and accelerator that further encourages its students to invent, create and design.
At Winnipeg’s St. John’s-Ravenscourt School, STEM begins in kindergarten, where young students learn how to use tablets and computers, and continues right through to the high-school grades, when students are able to choose from a wide variety of STEM courses and select the ones that interest them most. “Technology is not only integrated into every course, classroom and lesson,” says director of admissions and marketing Lindsay Stovel, “but students are also expected to use technological resources in all aspects of their learning and communication. It’s our goal to provide a technology-enriched learning environment that facilitates the development of critical and creative thinking skills, social responsibility and life-long learning.”
At many private schools, STEM is also a part of their roster of extracurricular activities, organizations and field trips, with some hosting science fairs or math competitions, or running after-school clubs where students can hone their coding, design or robotics skills alongside peers who share their affinity for a given STEM discipline. “We’re looking forward to the reinstatement of our after-school activities program,” Lee says. “It’ll focus, in part, on providing students with opportunities to apply and extend their knowledge in STEM subjects in a community context through participation in internships and clubs.”
In the end, while the approach to STEM and the degree to which it’s a part of everyday learning varies from school to school, it’s become a must-have component to curricula across the board at private schools. “One of the goals of all quality STEM programs is to get beyond the prejudices that we might have about science,” Herbert says. “In the past, scientists were thought of as lone geniuses. STEM programs adopt and promote that idea that science and technology aren’t fields dominated by lone geniuses squirrelled away ruminating on finite problems. Rather, they are a celebration of the community of people around the world that, working together, will solve the problems that we face and, together, make the greatest advances.”