On a brisk January morning, students enter Mrs. (Kimberly) Berkley’s classroom in the rural town of Meyersdale, Pa. with a sense of purpose and excitement as they slip on their white lab coats. Brightly colored posters on the wall proclaim “Future Scientists of America” and “Science is Way Cool!”
The fourth-graders have just finished a 12-week unit on electric circuits and are eager to share their learning with administrators, school board representatives and community members. The students quickly divide into groups so each student can present a diagram they made of a circuit: some open, some closed, in parallel and series. They proudly display wooden houses that were fabricated by the high school tech students and talk about how they wired each room.
Make no mistake, this was no “show and tell.” The morning was driven by questions—open-ended questions that make you think. Visitors asked the students questions, and the students asked the adults questions and questioned each other in small groups. The students flexed their 21st century skills of communication, collaboration and critical-thinking.
In fact, the students were modelling the work their teachers were engaged in as part of ASSET STEM Education’s five-year Investing in Innovation (i3) grant: creating a professional learning community focused on student improvement. The students mirrored the themes of the leadership pathway that more than 400 teachers and administrators participated in as part of the i3 program: shared leadership, a collaborative culture and continuous improvement.
Timothy Kretchman, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Meyersdale Area School District (MASD), said the district began to implement the same strategies in middle school and high school. “We recognize that this type of change takes time, growing the students’ mindset and their ability to think, reason and answer these types of questions.”
While many schools have scaled back or eliminated science programs as a way to focus on the reading portion of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, MASD has taken a different approach. “If you want a reason to read, you need to teach science. If you want a reason to write, you need to have science,” he said. “It gives the kids something they can find excitement and motivation in.”
That commitment has resulted in improved student performance on the PSSAs—not only in science but in reading, writing and math, according to Kretchman. “Our PSSA averages before implementing our science program were 79% proficient or advanced. Following implementation we have averaged 95% proficient or advanced and with an average of 70% of students in the advanced range.”
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are driving economic growth in the 21st century and rapidly changing America’s workforce demands.
STEM skills will be required for almost all of the 30 fastest growing occupations in the next decade (Business Center for a College and Career-Ready America, 2012). Non-STEM jobs require skills that are innate to STEM, including problem solving, research, analysis, critical thinking and decision making.
ASSET’s i3 grant program aimed to validate the impact of STEM professional development on student achievement. The program also gave priority to rural and high-needs schools across the state since many rural schools face unique challenges, such as a lack of access to and funding for comprehensive curriculum and professional development.
Seeing the students thrive is what Mrs. Berkley enjoys the most. “I really feel like I have the best job in the world. I love coming to work every day because they (students) love it,” she said. “The questioning, if anything, has been key.”
As a thank you to the visitors, Mrs. Berkley shared one of her favorite quotes from author Peter Block: “Good questions work on us, we don’t work on them. They are not a project to be completed but a doorway opening onto greater depth of understanding, actions that will take us into being more fully alive.”