At TPT, we’re lucky to have a community of incredibly dedicated educators with a wide range of expertise, knowledge, and experience to share. In March 2020, as part of our Teacher Voices series, we had the chance to speak with Sarah from Curiosity and the Hungry Mind, a STEM specialist from Australia who focuses on helping educators bring STEM into their classrooms.
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What drove you to become a STEM teacher?
I was given the opportunity four years ago to open a STEM specialist program at my school and I jumped at the chance. It seems the role of STEM educator was made for me. I am the teacher who is interested in everything. When a student asks how a volcano works, I’ve always been the type of teacher that would say “Let’s find out.” As a class, we would begin an investigation and experiment until we discovered the answers. After doing my research and investigating what a STEM specialist teacher would do and what it might look like, I was hooked.
After my first year of teaching STEM other educators started to take notice of how I was implementing my program and the pedagogy I was using. I was invited to speak at conferences and run workshops for students and teachers where I would explain how to develop STEM lessons that were enriching, engaging and were able to be assessed. More recently, I was invited to lead an educational group from Australia to NASA, where we explored all things space-related.
Why do you believe that STEM education is valuable for all students? How does it impact them in the classroom and beyond it?
All children are inherently interested in STEM. It is an avenue for students to make sense of the world around them and how everything is connected. STEM is a subject that allows all students to be successful. I love how students who often have little success in a standard classroom come to STEM and thrive. The reason this is the case is that the best STEM classrooms never have one answer to a problem. There are always infinite ways to design, engineer and create a solution. Students can touch, build, and create in every session.
Can you talk to us about your approach to nurturing students’ — particularly girls’ — interest in STEM? Why is it important to encourage this interest in the classroom setting?
I approach STEM with the attitude that you should never underestimate what children are capable of. Children need a chance to show you. Girls do want to learn and engage in STEM subjects, for the last 50 years, we’ve been going about it in the wrong way. Often girls are natural carers, they want to help others. However, when we take humanity out of a problem and present it as a mathematical equation, we lose all the amazing ideas and innovations that girls may have produced.
In order to nurture a curiosity for STEM with all students, I ensure that whatever we do is relevant to students’ lives. We use real-life problems that require a real solution. When students are faced with hypothetical problems that have no relevance to their lives, they often become disinterested. Another way to nurture students’ interest is to make every lesson is hands-on. Students become more engaged and display less behavioral issues when there are hands-on activities that relate to the topic.
What barriers have you observed from your own experience that might prevent girls being interested in STEM? How might educators work toward erasing those barriers
The strongest barrier in STEM are the stereotypes. In order to break down stereotypes of people in STEM professions, I like to invite people from our community in to speak with the students. In particular, I encourage many women in the field to speak with my students. The students think that people in a STEM field are mostly male and they often wear lab coats, when that is often not the case. For instance, a parent helper, who is a female computer engineer, helps out each week in the classroom, and she wears jeans and no lab coat. In addition, whenever I plan for a new topic, I ask the school community if there is anyone who is an expert in the field. Those experts volunteer their time to come and speak with the students. Most of them are parents. We’ve had guest speakers who were strawberry farmers and showed the students how food production works. Another mother who was a wildlife carer. These STEM professionals work outside and do not wear lab coats.
What steps have you taken — in your classroom, at your school, and/or in the materials you sell — to encourage gender equity in STEM education and to rewrite the narrative around women in STEM?
I make sure the students are exposed to women in STEM in a variety of ways. We held a science lunch club run by a school mom who is a scientist at a local university. When completing units on famous STEM personalities, I ensure students research an equal amount of female personalities as male. We make sure we highlight events such as Girls in Science Day and International Women’s History Month.
Ultimately, as a teacher, I need to represent and lead by example. I led a group of teenage girls on an educational tour from Australia to NASA, this really squashed all stereotypes and the girls thrived learning all about space exploration and participating in a space camp experience. When a woman accomplishes something amazing in STEM, I make sure my students hear about it. We celebrated the first all-woman team space walk, last year.
What are 1-3 things you do to help your students — particularly girls — see themselves in their learning materials, classroom, and curriculum? Why is this important?
1. Present real-world problems as a whole. Allow a choice of problems to solve. This allows all students to focus on areas they are interested in. I find some girls are more interested in environmental conservation while quite a few boys are interested in structural engineering.
2. Display posters and materials celebrating all STEM achievements. Highlight those from minority groups, so all students can see that everyone can achieve in any STEM field.
3. Use engineering examples from all areas of the world, in particular countries that represent your students’ background. This can give all students a broader understanding of different cultures and the challenges they face on a daily basis. It also allows students to draw from their experiences and share some of their families’ culture and background.
What opportunities to encourage STEM learning outside of the classroom (i.e. local organizations, programs, clubs, etc.)? How can educators tap into those or help students access them?
When looking for STEM opportunities outside the classroom I contact local agencies. If you live near the coast there will likely be a marine protection agency that might run workshops for children or sessions for families. I accessed one close to my school called the Dolphin Research Institute. It educated students on the environmental issues facing the waters around Melbourne and even took the students on a snorkeling trip with seals and dolphins. This was a program that partnered with the school and also offered out of school sessions.
To highlight some amazing work your students might be doing, you can contact your school district to see if there are any STEM showcases in your area. My students have been fortunate enough to feature in a showcase every year that I have taught STEM. They have even taken home prizes for their innovative designs.
Local groups such as Scouts have always incorporated STEM in their activities. It’s a great way to join a like-minded group of children and explore nature at the same time.
A fantastic organization called Girls Who Code runs programs worldwide for girls. You can connect with them online at www.girlswhocode.com. They have information and programs for students, teachers, and parents.
What are some steps that educators can take (regardless of the subject they teach) to encourage girls to enter STEM fields?
All educators can encourage girls to enter STEM fields by continually exposing them to the different occupations and opportunities available to them in these fields. Read books and watch movies in class that highlight women who have achieved in STEM fields. Use nonfiction passages that show the amazing work women are doing in STEM. A great place to start would be STEM for Women magazine.
For educators looking to improve their knowledge and understanding of STEM, where should they start?
I have put together a blog post all about free professional development for teachers in many different areas of STEM, including webinars from NASA in conjunction with Texas State University. Free programs from National Geographic and learn how to code professional development from Code.org.
How can TPT Teacher-Authors create more resources that combat negative gender stereotypes?
TPT Teacher-Authors have a lot of power. When you are creating a resource, make sure there are an equal number of women represented in your images and information as there are males. It is easy to overlook this, but it is something we need to be mindful of if we want our girls to be empowered to achieve all that they can.
Are there additional resources, articles, books, or podcasts that you’d recommend teachers look up when addressing diversity?
I love sharing pages from the book Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World. This book really brings to light some lesser-known, but not less important, women who made huge discoveries in their science fields.
Last but not least — what’s one thing that makes you smile? 🙂
Seeing students organically engage in STEM in nature. Curious exploration is amazing.
About Sarah from Curiosity and the Hungry Mind
I’m Sarah, a STEM specialist teacher since 2016. I am also the director and Teacher-Author of Curiosity and the Hungry Mind store. I hold a Bachelor of Education and have been in education for over 20 years. My experience through my roles as a classroom, visual arts, and Physical Education teacher have shaped me as a STEM educator. Leading international educational tours to NASA and speaking as an expert at the Improving STEM conference and Digitech Melbourne 2018, I shared my experience with fellow educators and aspiring teachers.
I am fueled by my passion for discovering how things work in the world around us. Discover what happens when I introduce new technologies or resources. Come along for the ride as my students’ minds are enriched with my infectious love of all things STEM.