How do you prepare today’s youth for jobs that haven’t yet been created? This is the central thesis Kara Anderson’s STEM lab attempts to resolve in a world of ever-expanding technology. STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, blends four educational disciplines into foundational principles utilizing a united framework. The result is a versatile range of problem-solving, analysis, and collaboration skills. Or, as Mrs. Anderson describes, “It’s learning through failure.”
“Some of the kids that do school really well have a hard time in STEM because they’re afraid to step out of the box, out of their comfort zone. Founding the STEM Program helped me relate to those kids. It’s what I have done my whole life. I would always think, this person’s better; let me ask them to do it for me. Now I’m like, I can fix this; let me watch a YouTube Video. It’s just changed my whole mindset.”
A veteran teacher with seventeen years of experience teaching seventh-grade mathematics, Mrs. Anderson describes herself as comfortable and could have easily coasted her way to retirement. Instead, she accepted an offer to become the Ottawa School District 141’s founding STEM laboratory instructor in 2016. Over the past seven years, the program has expanded using what Mrs. Anderson describes as a top-down approach.
She shares that the community has provided overwhelming support since the program’s inception. It has provided a level of greatly sought after resources. When you walk through the door of her class, you pass a board that lists countless individual donations from throughout the community. When Mrs. Anderson interacts with other STEM instructors across the country, they often envy her abundant resources. But she finds community engagement the most potent gift, suggesting that the residents of Ottawa are quick to volunteer their time or donate funding to help her students succeed.
She started by instructing seventh and eighth-grade students. Within two years, the program added additional faculty to include fifth and sixth grades. Within five years, the program had fully expanded to cover Kindergarten through eighth grade. Mrs. Anderson finds this expansion necessary, noting that the younger the child, the more willing they are to fail without fear. She has observed that the younger the student, the more comfortable they are with failure. While she isn’t positive when or how this mindset changes, she hopes the program helps reinforce the valuable role of failure in learning.
When asked what STEM means to her, Mrs. Anderson pauses to reflect. She believes that STEM isn’t necessarily simply teaching the sum of its parts. Instead, she says that “it’s teaching more of a culture. It’s a culture of learning. I tell these kids that by the time they graduate high school or college, there will be jobs out there that haven’t even been thought of yet.”
“We’re teaching you to problem solve; we’re teaching twenty-first-century skills such as collaboration. There are scientific terms included, but it’s more the idea that failing is okay. Let’s try; let’s design something. If it fails, that’s fine. What can we do to make it better? How can we problem solve?”
Ultimately, creative problem-solving and learning through failure aren’t just lessons Mrs. Anderson teaches her students through the STEM program. These are lessons that teaching STEM has taught her, as well.