STEM Skills Outside Class

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Using and learning STEM skills does not have to be relegated to just inside the classroom. Lacey Wieser, director of K-12 Science and STEM for the Arizona Department of Education, will be joined by board members from the Arizona Science Teachers Association to discuss how that can be done.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," how best to teach science and math skills outside the classroom. Also tonight, we'll hear from the new owner of the East Valley Tribune. And we'll meet a gentleman who was born before Arizona was a state. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is in the Valley, campaigning ahead of tomorrow's Arizona presidential preference election. Clinton spoke this afternoon at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix. Among other things, she spoke about gun control.

Hillary Clinton: There's a right in our country to be a gun owner. What we are advocating, what we are standing up for and speaking out for, are common sense gun reform measures.

Ted Simons: Clinton's Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, is scheduled to speak at a rally in Flagstaff this evening. Tonight's edition of Arizona education looks at planting the seeds of STEM. Producer Shana Fischer and photographer Langston Fields visit a school garden in downtown Phoenix that's reaping big rewards for students.

Student: Look! Cool! I love lettuce!

Shana Fischer: You can hardly blame the first graders at the leadership academy for getting excited about lettuce. For months, they've been tending to a garden they planted on campus.

Martha Pickett: Oh, it's been wonderful for us in the classroom. It's so much better than reading about plants and science in a book to come outside and actually see it happen.

Martha Pickett is their teacher. She says the learning experience is especially meaningful for her students for a couple of reasons. The school is named for United Farmworkers Union founder Cesar Chavez and many kids live in food deserts so they don't always have access to fruits and vegetables.

Kenny Washington: I'm excited about planting them because I wanted to see what color they are and how they smell.

Shana Fischer: Kenny Washington and his classmates are hard at work to keep their garden thriving. The garden project is STEM based. There's a science portion, learning how and why living things grow, and the students use math when deciding how much to water the seedlings but it's also a way to encourage the kids to investigate and explore.

Monika Woolsey: My experience is that kids are more likely to try foods that they've had a part in the process of growing. They get real fascinated, it's magic for them to put the seed and bury it in the dirt and then see something come up.

Shana Fischer: Monika owns Hip Veggies, an advocacy group that promotes awareness about local farms and hunger relief. She created the gardening program for the academy and comes by often to help the students. Local farms like Crooked Sky and Sing Farms have donated seeds and soil.

Paola Beltran: We planted some radishes for the garden because we use radishes for the salads.

Shana Fischer: In addition to radishes, the garden is filled with toy onions and greens. For the most part, the students have been successful but even the failures have lessons.

Monika Woolsey: We had an episode where the radishes weren't watered adequately enough and we had to learn that you have to take care of your plants and so that really has triggered their interest in watering a little better.

Martha Pickett: I think it will give them a really good, solid grounding on what it means to be a scientist, so asking questions and finding those answers, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. We even had interesting conversation about what it means to be a living thing.

Shana Fischer: She's impressed with her students and how they've stepped up to their new responsibilities.

Martha Pickett: It has been terrific for them and we're so pleased because it lasts all year that this is -- we'll be able to come back to it over and over again, growing different plants, having different kinds of experiences.

Ted Simons: The kids are reportedly engaged to the point of wanting to work on the garden, even during recess. Here now to talk about using STEM in and out of the classroom is Lacey Wieser, director of K-12 science and STEM for the Arizona department of education, Amanda Hughens, president of the Arizona Science Teachers Association, and Geneva Baker, the association's president-elect. Good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us. Well, we talked about using STEM skills outside the classroom. Teaching science and technology doesn't mean equations on the blackboard, does it?

Lacey Wieser: No, students are naturally curious so they want to understand how the world works. And so finding everyday common occurrences for students to ask questions and come up with ways of how to answer those questions and find those answers is really what's developing when we're talking about STEM. How do you build that scientific knowledge? How do you do engineering design? How do you tap into the technology that's available so students can answer real-life questions?

Ted Simons: How best do you do that outside of the classroom?

Amanda Hughens: I think a lot of times it's just finding children's natural curiosities, figuring out what it is that they want to know and indulging them in letting them explore that and find out more information to build that foundational knowledge and figure out how things work.

Ted Simons: Are there more STEM skills that translate better in the field than others?

Geneva Baker: I don't think so. I think most of our kids, I know in my classroom, they are really good at making connections and solving problems. And so STEM for us has become a problem solving kind of paradigm.

Ted Simons: It sounds like it might be a little bit more spontaneous in the field than in the classroom?

Geneva Baker: It can be both. It can be oh, I have this problem, how as a group are we going to fix it? We have a concrete sidewalk that won't drain. How do we fix that? But we also have planned out STEM program things, as well.

Ted Simons: So more spontaneous perhaps and more student centered, kind of student oriented in the field?

Lacey Wieser: In the field it's probably definitely more student centered but in the classroom there should be a lot of student centered, as well. So students' questions should help guide some of those discussions. Clearly, a teacher would want to have a goal of what the students are learning, but a lot of the education should be driven by students' questions and how can we best solve this?

Ted Simons: We talk a lot on this program about STEM. We just saw a big legislative fight regarding career and technical education schools and such. For non-science opportunities, though, I mean STEM skills are still valuable are they not?

Amanda Hughens: I think STEM is kind of that pendulum swinging back from the things that we learned from kids. We have maker spaces where it used to be home ec classes. We have the woodworking, the baking, the gardening, those STEM skills and sometimes, it's just putting those newer technologies that we have, the computers and the 3D printers, to be able to accomplish those same goals. So a lot of it hasn't changed that much but it's getting that problem focused piece of it.

Ted Simons: Is it tougher adapting to the newer technology? It's coming fast and furious.

Geneva Baker: I don't think so. I think the kids really -- their world is technology. So they are much more adaptable to the technology I think than the teachers are and a lot of times they will actually lead the learning where it goes.

Ted Simons: And it seems as though, pardon me for interrupting there, but it seems like there's more non-STEM fields out there that need STEM skills, true?

Geneva Baker: There are. The school I teach at we actually have what's called STEM career Friday where we bring in people, whether it's a mechanic or an engineer or a landscape architect, and actually have them talk to the kids about how they use science, technology, engineering and math in their actual careers.

Ted Simons: Are we going to reach a point where we don't even talk about STEM anymore? It's just basically education?

Lacey Wieser: I'm not sure. I know STEM helps place a focus on the need for solid science education, math education, technology and even engineering education. And I think the pendulum swung a little bit away from that for a while. So I think the idea is STEM helps pull those back to the forefront but really a well-rounded education is what our students need, to be able to make connections across all the disciplines and become creative problem solvers.

Ted Simons: Indeed and that seems like it happens out in the field more so than in the classroom because you're dealing with a variety of things in the great big world as opposed to again a desk, a tablet, a chalkboard, etc.

Amanda Hughens: It's having the students do kind of the thinking and to be able to let them explore what's going to work and what's not rather than giving them that recipe of different ideas and it does incorporate everything. I heard the argument everything with do we include the arts? Do we include history and add the H.? Do we make it STREAM for reading? And I think we can keep adding all these letters but most people look at it with STEM, it does incorporate all of those things because it does take the STEM pieces, they're incorporated in all other areas, as well.

Ted Simons: We should mention science, technology, engineering and math.

Amanda Hughens: Yes.

Ted Simons: With those in mind, your students, over the years, are you seeing a change? Are they more adaptable? Are they more interested? Are they more willing to learn?

Geneva Baker: They are better problem solvers than they have been in the past. One of our catch phrases I guess in our program is engineer a solution. If you don't know something, how can we solve that problem? Rather than me giving them the answer, kids have to come up with their own answer, they have to solve it.

Ted Simons: Again, we're back to this well-rounded education. Applicable education as opposed to just chalkboard learning.

Lacey Wieser: Yes, absolutely. And having kids be good problem solvers and families supporting them in asking questions and really making the thinking visible. So instead of just trial and error on solutions, figuring out what do you already know that's helped guide you to that answer and solution?

Ted Simons: With that in mind, challenges for teachers teaching STEM skills out of the classroom?

Amanda Hughens: I think sometimes, there's a lot to know and so being able to sometimes instead of just being the expert on all the education but being able to stand and facilitate on the side, being able to guide the students in their thought processes rather than being the deliverer of all the facts.

Ted Simons: And kind of understanding, I guess if you're teaching first grade and sixth grade, you kind of understand the tempo, the room as it were.

Amanda Hughens: Definitely and be able to know everything you have to put into play that you normally do, that classroom management, the safety, the appropriateness going by the standards that are set by the state to make sure that they're learning what they need to know to be able to build that foundation that will help them as they continue to get older.

Ted Simons: And as a teacher, biggest challenge you see regarding teaching STEM and especially outside the classroom?

Geneva Baker: I don't know. I think the biggest challenge that I see is as a middle school teacher getting all of my science and my math and all of those teachers to sit and work towards a common goal. I think -- it lets everybody go on this project.

Ted Simons: Last question for you. Is the education establishment understanding the importance of this kind of education?

Lacey Wieser: I think so. I think we're seeing a shift. We saw a shift with our E.L.A. and math standards in order to have students do a lot more argumentation, a lot more explanation, and I think that helps the STEM areas of getting away from just seeing science or math as discrete pieces of knowledge and really beginning to see the interconnectedness of the content areas.

Ted Simons: Very good. Good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us.

Amanda Hughens: Thank you.

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Lacey Wieser: Director of K-12 Science and STEM for the Arizona Department of Education

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