School’s out, but STEM's in

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Summer break is in full swing for most students, but many parents and those who volunteer in the classroom continue to be interested in ways to keep the momentum going.

That desire brought together a panel of SAS Curriculum Pathways staff at an education-based event last month at SAS world headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. The focus?  Providing insight and practical ideas for a smarter summer.

The panel featured three staff members:

  • Lee Ellen Harmer, Customer Solutions Manager
  • Lucy Kosturko, Curriculum Development Specialist
  • Jennifer Sabourin, Software Developer
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Moderator Jessica Marquardt speaks with (L to R) Jennifer Sabourin, Lucy Kosturko, and Lee Ellen Harmer.

They focused on five important ways to keep students actively engaged throughout the summer.

  1. Integrate personal interests.

Kosturko, whose first official STEM project was creating a “Guide to Ballet” HTML website, said it’s important to discover what students’ interests are and to create challenges and projects around those. “There was something so powerful about being able to share something I had made,” she said.

But if you’re going to bring interests in as a motivator, she added, you must do so intentionally to create a meaningful learning experience.

“We know that all of our kids and students differ. They’re not one-size-fits-all,” said Harmer. Some students may be challenged in a particular area and need more practice; others may be excelling and looking for more of a challenge.”

“What you wouldn’t want to do is engage girls in STEM by putting it in a story and engage the boys in STEM by doing it [another]way,” said Sabourin. “What you really should do is figure out what the students’ interests are and let them bring in their own interests in a meaningful way.”

“As domains and other disciplines continue to rely on technology to advance and innovate, the range of STEM careers is ever expanding,” said Kosturko. “This breadth helps students identify with a STEM career regardless of their interests, strengths, or weaknesses.”

  1. Be aware of learning styles, but focus on the learning objective.

Kosturko warned that if you try to teach to a student’s preferred learning style (visual, verbal, procedural, and semantics) but don’t present the information in a way that allows the student to best encode that information and remember it later, learning will be difficult for them. For instance, if you want students to locate the Big Dipper, they need to see an image even if they tend to be a verbal learners.

Panelists also cautioned against the belief that males learn differently than females. “It’s just not true,” said Sabourin. For example, some suggest putting the context into a story for female students because girls tend to like stories. “You are doing them a disservice because the ultimate task you might be performing in your STEM career isn’t necessarily tied to a story,” she said. "Think about what they need to know or accomplish and whether the teaching method supports that need."

Kosturko shared a humorous example of the need to focus on the learning objective, recalling an activity she planned for a middle school computer science camp for girls. She had each student convert the digits of their birthday to binary numbers and create colored-bead necklaces to represent those numbers. They spent a few minutes on the binary numbers worksheet but another two hours stringing elaborate necklaces, bracelets, jewelry for friends. Later, none of them could recall how to convert the number five to binary. “We remember what we think about. And what were the girls thinking about for two hours versus five minutes for the worksheet?” She recommended centering on the learning objective and teaching toward that.

  1. Form a small group in addition to working one-on-one.

Research shows that working with peers helps students stay more motivated.

“I had lots of STEM mentors…role models and peers of all different genders,” said Sabourin. “I really had a STEM community.”

Her ideal mentoring situation would combine three or four same-gender students from the same school. She would meet with them one-on-one as well as with the full group to help guide them and show them what is possible: “To have them in a group that they can rely on themselves when they’re in school – day to day – would be the most powerful takeaway rather than just one-on-one time with me.”

  1. Find the STEM in everything.

“You don’t have to go out and buy a science lab or robotics kit to expose students to STEM,” said Kosturko. “Simply find activities that involve creation or innovation.”  She believes that will help diversify some of the stereotypes of careers in STEM.

Even the simple act of getting children to help cook dinner introduces many STEM-based concepts. “Cooking is science,” said Sabourin, noting that it gets them thinking about the effect of different oven temperatures and chemical reactions in baking.

  1. Meet students where they are, and get started now.

The panelists agreed that it’s never too early to begin building foundational skills that support STEM and that the summer is a perfect time to try new ideas.

SAS Curriculum Pathways, demonstrated by Harmer during the event, caters to learners at every level in grades K-12. The resources in SAS Curriculum Pathways, she said, are designed to augment instruction and meet students where they are. Five disciplines are available (English Language Arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and Spanish), and the product is free to everyone. “We’re helping students with some of these foundational skills in the K-12 arena that they can carry with them through college and career.”

Sabourin was adamant that it’s never too late to begin some of these activities, and there’s no such thing as being bad at math. “Anybody can develop the skills,” she said. “Encourage this growth mindset: I don’t have these skills yet, but I can get them, and there are steps I can take to learn these skills. That’s what is going to set you up for success in any career.”

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Becky Graebe

Director, Communications

In addition to traditional employee communication efforts at SAS, Becky Graebe oversees an award-winning global intranet and a variety of enterprise social media channels. Her goal is to create a working environment where SAS employees around the world feel connected and inspired to share fresh ideas, solutions and expertise with colleagues and customers. Having studied at Southern Methodist University and earned her degree from Stetson University, she now serves on the Employee Communications Section board for the National Public Relations Society of America, is an active member of Triangle Women in Communications, and volunteers with Citizen Schools and the Wake County Support Circle Program.

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