by Cori Hilsgen
Teachers at All Saints Academy are teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) because those subjects are the keys that will unlock successful futures in an increasingly competitive world.
ASA Administrator Karl Terhaar said according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018 STEM occupations will account for about 8.6 million jobs in the U.S. economy. This is an increase from 7.3 million jobs in 2008.
He said the United States currently ranks 25th in math and 17th in science when compared to other countries on international assessments.
Because technological and scientific advancements have resulted in an ever-increasing demand for students who have these skills, the staff of ASA in St. Joseph has decided to transition to a STEM school.
At a STEM school, students learn problem-solving and critical-thinking skills through use of hands-on and collaborative projects focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Lead STEM teacher Tess Koltes said third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students are involved with math, and kindergarten, first- and second-grade students are involved with science classes.
“We are making an effort to teach at least 50 minutes of math each day and at least three solid units or 120 days of science instruction,” Koltes said.
Fifth- and sixth-grade students recently worked on a geometry math lesson. Educators from various other schools came to observe the lessons and how receptive students were to it.
“Students are familiar with having visitors in the classrooms, as we rely on college helpers through the America Reads program to assist us with various tasks,” Koltes said. “On the whole, students enjoy having other educators in the classroom because there are more people to look to if they have a question.”
Mary Cheryl Opatz from the ASA, St. Cloud campus, was one of the people who observed the students.
“I felt privileged to be involved in the STEM observation/feedback team,” Opatz said. “It was fun watching the kids engage in math so heartily. I especially enjoyed listening to the students ‘talk math’ and use the vocabulary. It was amazing how many ways they found to approach the same problem. I also saw wonderful dialogue from the professional learning teams that ‘hashed out’ a lesson and the dedication of the teachers who then met again in their professional learning committees to rework their lesson for the second go round. The revised lesson really demonstrated the value of this STEM process.”
Third- through sixth-grade students are in the second year of a three-year commitment to math. Kindergarten through second-grade students are in their first year of a three-year commitment to science.
Third- through sixth-grade teachers are using different methods to teach math. They are asking the students to justify their answers more. Examples of questions they are asking the students include, “How did you get that?,” “Why does this work?,” “Are there any other strategies to solve this problem?” and others.
Last school year, the ASA teachers began using Measure of Academic Proficiency testing. This is computer testing done in the fall, winter and spring of the year. Student lessons are based on areas of the most need. The focus last year for STEM math was algebra and this year the focus is geometry. Last year’s test results showed student improvement. They are hoping for similar results this year.
Educators at ASA are involved in a three-year STEM project with half of the staff attending workshops for improving math instruction and the other half to improve science instruction. They form professional learning communities to improve their skills of teaching in these areas. They then attend regular in-school staff development sessions to share what they are learning with each other.
In math, teachers Robin Kremer, Theresa Fleege, Tess Koltes and Susan Huls average about once each week for meetings. Some weeks they meet two or three times and others not at all. Fifth- and sixth-grade teachers have completed a lesson study on area of rectangles and triangles, and third- and fourth-grade teachers will teach attributes of shapes.
Fleege teaches fourth grade at ASA and is one of the teachers that has been at the St. Joseph campus the shortest period of time.
“I am currently in my second year of the math portion of STEM along with the third-, fifth- and sixth-grade teachers,” Fleege said. “This program focuses on collaboration among teachers through creating, teaching and team evaluation of lessons. Through the workshops we have been exposed to ways of demonstrating (and) teaching concepts that allow the students to discover what is happening instead of being told. In my classroom, students are able to prove and then communicate the why of math versus just stating an answer. This has allowed for a greater understanding of the concepts and has helped the students self-check their own work.”
The math community of teachers has attended three training sessions and will attend another in February. The training usually begins in July and is scheduled in October, December and February. Teachers are encouraged to complete at least two lesson studies in the classrooms in one academic school year.
“The beauty of it is a group comes together to plan and support each other in teaching,” Koltes said. “It challenges all of us to be better educators.”
Because ASA does not have a computer teacher, teachers have also incorporated technology into the classroom. They have also purchased additional hands-on science kits and math manipulatives to improve instruction in those areas.