What makes a great STEM school? 

It’s not what you have. It’s what you do with what you’ve got. 

by Glen Herbert

I was asked recently by an editor for Toronto Life about what kind of technology resources RLC offers students. In the popular imagination STEM is about stuff, which is why every media presentation of it shows 3D printers, snap circuits, and robots. That's what people see first, and that's because that's what we see whenever there's an article about STEM learning. The reason is because stuff photographs well; it’s easy to take a photo of a robot; it’s hard to take a photo of inspiration, or insight, or being lost in thought.

And that’s what the editor was asking: What stuff do you have? At Rosseau Lake College, we have lots of it. These days, most schools in Canada do. But I still think it’s the wrong question. You can have all the stuff in the world and still not deliver on the promise of what STEM represents, and why it’s needed. The goal isn’t to have more 3D printers, it’s to allow kids to explore, to make new connections, to ask new questions, and to seek creative answers to the questions they raise. It isn’t what students are learning with but how they are learning that’s most important. And those are the better questions: How are the students accessing the curricular content? How are they interacting with others? How much are they able to exercise their curiosities? The editor didn’t ask those questions, and, again, I can appreciate why. Though I wish she had, because that’s what STEM is really about. It’s about helping young people get lost in thought.

Where did STEM come from?

In many ways the antecedent to the whole STEM concept is what Jonas Salk created in San Diego in 1960, and later styled as the Salk Institute. Salk called it a “crucible of creativity,” and it was an expression of his belief that “most of the exciting work in science occurs at the boundaries between disciplines.” It was (and is) about bringing different perspectives together, allowing people to think creatively beyond disciplines. Today, as throughout its history, the Salk Institute invariably ranks among the top academic institutions in the world in terms of research quality and output and program quality. The reason isn’t stuff, it’s academic culture. 

Salk knew, too, that we learn as much from those next to us—our peers—as we do from those standing at the front of the room. MIT’s Building 20 is another great example. It was a plywood building, essentially the place where people set up their labs when there wasn’t room elsewhere. As a result, there were physicists, neurophysiologists, linguists—Noam Chomsky worked there—even the MIT train club. They all swapped ideas, train club members too, simply because they kept running into each other in the halls and the common spaces. The building ultimately encouraged the work of eight Nobel prize winners, among much else.

STEAM learning—adding that Arts component—has some important antecedents, too. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, the arts and the sciences were essentially one in the same, as was philosophy and medicine, which allowed for all sorts of innovative thinking. “Learning how to think like an engineer is very powerful,” says Domenico Grasso, provost at the University of Delaware. “But other disciplines also have very powerful approaches to thinking.” 

How does RLC support STEM learning?

That’s the kind of STEM program that RLC seeks to be, and indeed that's what it's been since before STEM was even a thing. One that stresses academic literacy, but in an interdisciplinary way. The spaces are a-traditional (that’s one of the technologies we offer, actually) and instruction is cross-disciplinary. Programs, such as Discovery Days and Term Courses were designed to amplify what had been happening prior, namely bringing disparate ways of thinking together, allowing students to apply everything they’ve learned to a topic of personal interest. They reflect the best of what was happening at the Salk and Building 20: allowing people to work meaningfully at the boundaries between disciplines on problems that are important to them. 

We also require that all students go out on canoe trips. Which, admittedly, may not seem technical. But it is. A canoe is a technology, and travelling together in one, or a few, is the apex of experiential, group learning. Students are required to interact effectively with each other, to solve technical problems together in real time, and to stay focussed on the job at hand. In that sense, canoe trips encourage all the same kinds of postures that STEM labs are built to access: creativity, collaboration, application, and a sense of agency. 

Why are STEM courses important?

One of the goals of STEM is to reorient students’ relationship to science, namely through working in teams to solve real-world problems. Especially in the past, scientists were thought of as lone geniuses. Einstein, for example, devising the theory of relativity while riding a bicycle through the Swiss countryside; Newton sitting beneath a tree; Pythagoras cogitating in his cave; or Darwin scribbling away in his berth on the Beagle. There is some truth to those ideas. Einstein very famously did work alone, though not necessarily because he chose to. So did Gregor Mendel and Marie Curie. Many, however, didn’t. Thomas Edison for example, had a staff of over 200 working in six different buildings. 

More than ever before, science and technology aren’t fields dominated by lone geniuses squirrelled away ruminating on finite problems. Rather, they are a celebration of the community of people around the world that, working together, will solve the problems that we face and, together, make the greatest advances. They also require a broad range of experience, expertise, and perspective. “Engineers focus on how it works,” says Jenni Buckley, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware. “Artists focus on the user experience.” It’s one thing to have a good idea, and quite another to explain it effectively to others, and still another to lead a team of collaborators to bring that idea to successful fruition.

Yes, at the end of the day there is a certain amount of resources that a school requires in order to have a strong STEM program. Just as you need computers to have a quality IT program, or art supplies to have a quality fine art program, you need some key learning resources to build technological fluency. But, how learning tools are positioned within instruction is as important as the tools themselves. Pictures, after all, don’t paint themselves, they require a space for ideas to happen, and a culture that will encourage them to grow.

Extending the promise of STEM

That’s true for tech, too. Ideas need a culture to encourage them, and spaces for them to grow. The creation of a STEAM lab at Rosseau Lake College is a chance to extend all the possibilities that STEM offers. The spaces will be multi-use, open. The furniture and walls can be used to create small group spaces one day, and converging larger groups the next. One instructor, when looking at the preliminary designs, commented that she loved that you can’t tell where the front of the room is, or where the teacher is. Which is precisely the point. The spaces reorient the relationships within them, getting away from some of the traditional hierarchies. Teachers become mentors and guides, rather than the sage on a stage. Students don’t sit quietly, taking notes, but learn through being involved, trying new things. 

Likewise, the spaces, and the focus on project-based learning, reorients the students' relationship to the material. Rather than, say, encountering math problems about cars, or goats, or red balls, they  are using the curricular content in situations that are meaningful and purposeful for them. Outside of projects, they might be given to ask “why do I need to know this?” or “is this going to be on the exam?” But if they’re designing a trebuchet to hit a target, the math is key to their success. The “why” questions become moot: they have to do the math for the project to be successful.

Inspiration is important, too. The spaces will be inspiring, granting a sense of momentum, of participation in active creation, rather than passive comprehension. Students will see what others are doing, just as others will see what they are working on. There will be interfaces with nature, an abundance of natural light—these will be spaces for people to linger within. They take all the important lessons of the Salk Institute and Building 20—blurring the boundaries between disciplines–while improving on the spaces themselves, making them comfortable and, frankly, beautiful. 

Do the students need all those things? Yes, in fact, they do. It is our responsibility to create the setting in which they can express themselves, develop their ideas, and work together. They need that, because the world needs them. And it begins with creating the space, establishing the culture, and granting them the time to get lost in thought.