Jun 26, 2020 2020-06-26
By Val Jones
Kick Down Obstacles
In smaller rural schools, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education can face troublesome barriers. In our K–12 district of 730 students, we have many of the common obstacles, including limited funds, no extra faculty, and an already overloaded class schedule. These three join arms to block us from using any of the really cool programs we’d like to. Other institutions sing praises of cutting-edge programs and share their successes. Meanwhile, rural schools are trying to figure out how to educate equally deserving kids in STEM.
When we couldn’t afford to buy our own program, we used one of the basic tenets of STEM to develop one—we engineered it ourselves!
Put Your Best Foot Forward
In any improvement process, you should start with your strengths. So, we did—we went to our students.
All students interested in exploring STEM-related activities, like coding, robotics, 3D printing, virtual reality, or any other tech, please report to the high school library during seminar. We need your help!
We invited them to a meeting. We got the perfect students to get us started—the ones who were motivated in tech. From the beginning, these young people made it clear that they were not interested in the typical survey course where you learn a little bit about each distinct area. They have done those programs in school for years and years. These reflective and honest kids told us if they could choose their own program—and we were telling them they could—then they would design something different.
The Unexpected Benefit
The participating students grew in front of our eyes. The adults listened, only talking to ask students questions to help us all refine ideas. We sat back and let them be the driving force. Almost immediately, the students stepped right into leadership. They became energized and involved. They learned to agree and disagree. They learned to plan and replan. On the heels of all this, we saw confidence billowing, including from students who had never really had a chance to step up prior. Even if we had continued on with no tech projects, I would have been happy with just these leadership opportunities.
The Rise of the Passion Projects
Two things became apparent. First, our students told us they wanted to explore one tech area of their choice or maybe two. But they wanted to explore them deeply. They wanted to spend time learning and trying things, designing and building, and creating. They wanted to work in their chosen tech discipline until they were tired of it and that might be all year long.
Second, the students did not all want to study the same STEM area. There were several that wanted to look into 3D printing. There were a couple who thought robotics was their niche. One wanted to code. They had a number of different tech areas they wanted to gain, but there was not an entire class of anything. There was not even an entire after-school club of anything. The numbers were just not there.
Thus, the solution: The Passion Project. If each individual picked what he or she would dream of doing, designed his or her own experience, and helped adults know how to actualize it, we could meet all the needs.
More Opportunity for Growth Experiences
Over time, these Passion Projects have morphed into so many opportunities for real-world learning—beyond what even tech can teach. The students build their own timelines, research their own tech, and raise funds if needed. For needed resources, they have to complete the same purchasing process required of our faculty. They communicate with experts under our watchful eyes. It seems that so many of those soft skills, or what I like to call intangibles, that we want workers to exhibit can be learned when the student has to drive his or her own work.
It also turns out that if you don’t buy an entire lab of any one piece of tech, you can sometimes get a good deal on one even nicer piece of equipment.
Also, if students build their own 3D printers, you can save money AND you have built-in tech support in the kids—they built it, so they can fix it!
We have had all of the above-mentioned projects and study areas, plus many more. Here are a few:
By using Passion Projects, students can explore tech of their choice, find out what they like, rule out what they do not like, and create opportunities that follow them to college and the work force.
Val Jones, MsEd, currently serves as the Director of Curriculum for the East Buchanan School District. Here she wears several hats, her favorite of which is as a consultant to STEM students on their Passion Projects.