In a classroom at A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School, Vaughn and fellow teachers used colorful markers to scribble ideas on posters about what literacy in math looks and sounds like. They learned secrets of a complex graphing calculator and the science behind how the adolescent brain works.
As part of the 2013 Richmond County School System Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Institute, more than 200 teachers spent three days this week learning strategies to better teach STEM concepts. It is part of the district’s effort to give teachers more tools to keep up with the growing state and national emphasis on STEM education and expectation to make high schoolers ready for college and careers.
“We are trying to get our teachers to use creativity to get our kids more creative and become innovative thinkers,” said Shelly Allen, the math coordinator for Richmond County. “We’re looking for sustainable development. Not a one-hit wonder institute and that’s it.”
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts jobs requiring STEM skills will increase by 34 percent by 2018, while businesses across Georgia report a lack of qualified workers coming into the market.
The Common Core Standards adopted in Georgia last year also emphasize a stronger focus on literacy across subjects, including areas such as science and math. The College and Career Ready Performance Index, the state’s new accountability system, grades schools and districts on how they prepare students for life after high school through college course and career pathway offerings.
The shift has made teachers evolve and learn new ways of reaching students, said Vaughn, a Pine Hill Middle School special education teacher.
“It’s not enough now just for the student to get the answer right,” Vaughn said. “They have to explain it and justify their answers, even in math. Two plus two equals four is not the answer anymore.”
One session during the STEM Institute focused on how to motivate students to learn and move them from a fixed mind-set to a growth mind-set. In this theory, it’s possible to change students who believe they can’t learn into thinking hard work can help them build intelligence.
Vaughn said she learned that also relates to how to reward teenagers.
“If you just tell a child ‘you’re smart’ they don’t want to fail so they might shy away from a more rigourous problem,” she said. “But if you focus on their hard work and effort and praise that, it will encourage the child to stay engaged.”
While the teachers had several sessions that focused on theory, including a presentation from Georgia Regents University associate professor William Hill on the adolescent brain, they also learned hands-on activities they could use in their classrooms.
Allen said teachers learned an engineering experiment where they built houses out of straws, paper plates and paper clips and used a fan to test their strength. Another science activity focused on building rockets.
Although Westside High School economics teacher John Gregg does not teach STEM subjects, he attended the institute to get a better grasp on how to incorporate literacy and numeracy into his economics classes.
“I believe in STEM education,” he said. “It’s just the higher order thinking that’s going to help them down the road. We have to get them there so ours are not part of the lower wage earners, the McDonald’s and that type of thing. That’s an entry level job, not a career.”