The task of plaiting all the STEM disciplines together into one cohesive curriculum can seem as massive and complex as the global challenges tomorrow’s STEM experts will need to solve. Yet that’s what today’s teachers are being asked to do.
With both the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards demanding broader and deeper connections among STEM subjects, teachers face mounting pressure to provide cross-disciplinary learning experiences. But with little research available on what successful integration looks like, many educators end up groping in the dark, trying to forge connections between subjects that have traditionally been taught in silos.
For film and broadcasting teacher Amanda Fox, however, all it took was finding just the right element to seamlessly weave it all together. Her solution? Storytelling.
“As humans, we’re natural-born storytellers,” she says. “When you have a unified storyline that all students are working with, they feel like everything is connected, and it really hits home.”
As the film and broadcasting instructor at The STEM Academy in Georgia, the state’s first STEM-certified middle school, Fox spent the past several years co-authoring an award-winning trans-disciplinary STEAM curriculum that integrates all of the related subject areas into a single unit in which students are dropped into the center of a story about multidimensional travel. As students explore their fictional universe, they draw upon the full range of STEAM disciplines to solve challenges and decide where to take the story next.
The approach is an ideal way to address the ISTE Standards for Students, which expect students to use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.
“Storytelling is important because it takes them out of this world and away from the restraints of earth,” says Fox, winner of the 2016 ISTE Emerging Leader Award. “It gives them the freedom to think creatively while working with content oriented toward earth science. It takes away the fear of failure because they’re applying these concepts in a place where that doesn’t exist.”
Fox and her co-authors built their STEAM curriculum around a project-based learning (PBL) framework she developed in part from her master’s degree studies. Its essential elements include:
If the curriculum were a skeleton, with each bone representing a subject, the plot would be the cartilage connecting them all together.
“The plot adds a creative spark to the project,” Fox says. “It gives context and situates the design challenge within a story. It connects the learning process and makes it jointed.”
At The STEM Academy, students spend three years learning within a single epic storyline. In sixth grade, they discover the fictional earth-like planet of Nevermore and begin studying it from afar, exploring environmental issues and other concerns as they decide whether to inhabit the planet as a future colony. By seventh grade, an asteroid headed toward Earth forces the student scientists to travel to Nevermore and begin studying its biome, logging their fictional experiences in journals. In eight grade, they begin colonizing the planet, designing rovers for traveling and grappling with local politics.
“The kids are part of storytelling process,” she says. “They get to take it wherever they want to go.”
Every story needs a problem or dilemma. It’s what generates the dramatic tension that keeps us reading. For students, having a problem is even more important, since it fuels learning by giving them an authentic reason to deepen their understanding of the subject.
“You have to give students a problem to solve that involves critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and problem-solving skills,” Fox says. In addition to providing an overarching dilemma — whether humans should colonize planet Nevermore — her curriculum presents many smaller problems and design challenges along the way.
Engaging students’ passions is another crucial component. Fox achieves that in part by creating a storyline kids can really buy into and get excited about solving. Giving students the creative freedom to take the plot in their own direction also makes a difference.
“We leave it open-ended so kids have freedom to solve the problem their way,” Fox says. “We don’t tell them how. We let them come up with their own ways to do it that they’re passionate about.”
Collaborating on a finished product gives students a taste of what it’s like in the business world, where employees are expected to work together to produce tangible results. At The STEM Academy, students work together to make videos, design rovers, create models of insects and simulate biomes using stop-motion animation.
“We try to give them as much interaction with their peers as possible,” Fox says. “They work together designing solutions and gaining experience figuring out how to communicate with each other.”
The project cycle doesn’t end once the product is finished, however. Fox encourages students to share their work by publishing it on the internet, creating wikis, posting videos on YouTube, entering film festivals and presenting at conferences.
“The walls of our classrooms should not hide student work. It needs to get out there,” Fox says. “Publication is huge. It gives students a broader audience and makes their work purposeful. They work harder because they know more eyes are going to be on it.”
Today, as the CEO of her own instructional design company, Fox is continuing to develop her unique approach to curriculum through her STEAMPunks after-school program. She hopes to eventually make it replicable in schools everywhere.
“With STEM education a common dialogue and nomenclature is needed to make it cohesive and ensure the learning process transfers from one content area to next,” she says. “Storytelling teaches how content connects, how it works together, and why the humanities are just as important as engineers and scientists.”