Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Goldilocks: An Engineer?

August 1, 2017

Lukas Hefty Goldilocks STEM 1000w

By Lukas Hefty (FL '16)

Lukas Hefty is the elementary mathematics specialist at Pinellas County Schools. This post originally appeared on the Education Commission of the States website and is reprinted with permission.

Recent research and policy initiatives have placed a spotlight on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, and with good reason. We need to better prepare our students for the 21st century workplace. Equally critical, we must ensure that each and every child grows into a responsible citizen in a dynamic, technology-driven world. So how can we categorize a STEM initiative as equitable—or, if we're talking about Goldilocks, "just right" for every child?

I would argue that it must meet, at minimum, two criteria:

  • Begins in early childhood
  • Provides full access to all students

Research suggests that middle school is often too late to change a student's mindset about science or mathematics. Girls have often already internalized the stereotype of being lesser mathematicians than their male counterparts. Underrepresented groups shy away from competition with more confident peers. Yet the majority of STEM funding is funneled into secondary or after-school programs that may perpetuate inequity in STEM fields.

Why not kindergarten? Could it be a lack of clarity on what STEM looks like in early childhood? The Next Generation Science Standards offer guidance, with K-2 Engineering Design Standards and Science & Engineering Practices. Carefully articulated K-5 curriculum that purposefully develops these practices will encourage children to view themselves as engineers, scientists and mathematicians. In this framework, what we believe about ourselves influences what we achieve. Children enter school with a natural curiosity about the world, and elementary curriculum alone has the capacity to prepare all students for success in secondary and post-secondary STEM programs.

Douglas L. Jamerson, Jr. Elementary in Pinellas County, Florida, federally funded by the Magnet Schools Assistance Program in 2003, offers additional guidance. Innovative, teacher-developed curriculum carefully weaves together content standards and practices and development of knowledge with soft skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking). In kindergarten, teachers have discovered that Goldilocks and other fairy tales offer a rich problem-solution context. Students use an engineering design process to develop "Just Right" chairs for Goldilocks. Throughout the process, they hone their ability to collaborate, communicate effectively with teammates and persevere through multiple iterations. More importantly, the unit intentionally sequences a series of lessons that build background knowledge and level the playing field for all students. (Learn more here.)

And it doesn't stop with Goldilocks. Jamerson teachers have developed integrated units of study that coherently build in complexity from kindergarten through fifth grade. Kindergarteners who cry as their chair design collapses under "More Mass Goldilocks" develop into fifth-graders who struggle through dozens of bridge prototypes before successfully meeting the design criteria. Jamerson students head to middle school with the skill set and mindset to succeed in any field. Many students from the original classes are now heading into post-secondary STEM programs around the country.

Can similar results occur in every school? The importance of teacher-developed curriculum cannot be overstated here. This is not an after-school club or specialized lab. It is developed by all teachers to meet the needs of each and every student, and requires significant shift in policy and practice.

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