Empowering Partnerships

How communities and businesses can help shape STEM education.

GUEST COLUMN | by P.J. Boardman

CREDIT i2 learningFor many software companies, engaging with faculty and students to improve STEM education involves making courseware, lesson plans, worksheets, and instructor guides publicly available. Software companies can take that approach one step further with partnerships that empower teachers, providing new ways to teach and offering students new ways to learn.

When businesses provide schools with more than simply products, and instead work with educators to make the student experience more real and tangible, the learning becomes more effective and real evolution in education occurs.

This past year, MathWorks partnered with i2 Learning, an organization that works with world-class scientific and academic institutions, and offered engaging and immersive STEM courses in engineering, genetics, robotics, mathematics, and more. The partnership provided 15 Boston area schools with financial support and STEM curriculum development as part of the Boston City Package – a “teach the teachers” pilot program designed to offer proper STEM training for Boston teachers of all technical backgrounds.

The teachers learned the curriculum in June and then practiced teaching it to middle school students in July. These courses – with topics ranging from Engineering Ice Cream, to Building Vertical Farms, to Contagion: Pandemic Response – are now being rolled into the school year curriculum, broadening the value of STEM learning to students in the Boston area.

As i2 Learning founder Ethan Berman says, “In all of the courses, there’s an aspect of creativity, questioning, and developing the skills of scientists and engineers. Students test things that may fail and then redesign and revise until they get where they want to be. They’re learning from that failure rather than being scared to fail.”

Collaboration and learning from failure are both key elements in STEM learning. So agrees Christopher Roche, a computer science and robotics teacher at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass. Roche says, “I love teaching my students something that they would use as if they were a professional engineer. The MATLAB computational software course, Bytes and Beats, teaches the fundamentals of programming with music and lets students engage with low-cost hardware, like Arduino and sensors – it’s active learning and they have fun doing it even when they’re finding themselves challenged in new ways.”

Evolving STEM Learning

Through the Boston City Package, i2 Learning and other organizations are instilling 21st-century skills in students by developing a curriculum that has more real world applications.

“The real world aspect is so important in STEM and it’s still lacking in a lot of STEM education,” says Roche. “When students work with the Next-Generation Science Standards skills of modeling and simulation, educators and businesses are able to demonstrate how these tools are used in the real world, in aeronautics, and by major car manufacturers. It helps the students imagine, envision, and innovate in their own classrooms.”

i2 Learning is also helping to evolve education by challenging the way teachers teach. Rather than having a teacher conduct a classroom lecture (while the students take notes), there are more student-directed, project-based activities in STEM learning, in which the students can choose different directions. It’s about letting the teacher and students feel comfortable working in that environment.

“In an engaging, open, and creative environment, there’s an immersive element to it that you may not see with a traditional learning format,” says Berman. “You give students a real block of time to experience the subject they’re learning.” And in that environment, they’re collaborating with their fellow classmates and teachers to create something together.

Adds Roche, “There’s music, sound, engineering – it’s interdisciplinary and the students have more time and space to explore.” 

The Role Businesses Can Play in Education

When businesses provide schools with more than simply products, and instead work with educators to make the student experience more real and tangible, the learning becomes more effective and real evolution in education occurs.

The partnership between MathWorks and i2 Learning is helping more students study STEM, especially those in under-represented communities; and it’s helping teachers learn how to teach differently and inspire students to pursue STEM studies and careers.

i2 Learning has plans to continue the Boston City Package program and expand to more schools next year. “We’re using Boston as an example for other cities,” says Berman. “Boston is the first, and it has a lot to do with the support of private companies and the surrounding community stepping up as a leader in promoting and being hands-on with STEM education.”

P.J. Boardman leads the education marketing team for MathWorks. P.J. received a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from the College of the Holy Cross and is a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela. She is currently pursuing a Master of Education in Instructional Design from UMass Boston.

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