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Got STEM funding? Here’s how to use it

This three-pronged approach will help districts maximize their STEM investment

By Joachim Horn
chief executive officer, SAM Labs July 2nd, 2018

Schools lack the resources they need to properly offer coding education to students. So it’s not surprising that U.S. employers have only been able to fill 10 percent of available computer science jobs with qualified applicants. Progress was made this year when the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) was tasked to devote at least $200 million of its grant funds annually to STEM education, and this initiative was followed by an additional $300 million from tech giants and the private sector for K-12 computer science programs.

While many believe that these funds are a beacon of hope for schools in the future, there is some concern that schools won’t know how to best use the money to drive change in coding education. A solution that I have seen work is to increase the focus on STEAM in the classroom so that we don’t inadvertently squander the progress made this past year. We can do this by collectively committing to teacher training programs, investing in long-lasting edtech classroom products, and enhancing curriculums to emphasize coding in every subject.

First, invest in teachers
Even though some tech-forward students may know a thing or two about coding, most of their teachers haven’t been given a clear directive on how, or when, to incorporate technology into their classrooms. To properly integrate coding and computer science into our education system, it is critical to provide teachers with access to training programs that support their personal development and better prep them with technology they may not even be familiar with, themselves. Give teachers time and support to get trained. Make a commitment.

Schools need to invest in supporting teachers through lesson plans and help sessions that will give them the confidence to teach concepts they may not be proficient in. Teachers are the first line of communication for students. If they aren’t prepared to instruct on the coding or STEAM-related principles their schools are asking them to push forward, any funds afforded to increasing student understanding of these concepts are already being used erroneously.

Investing first in teachers is the best way to create a solid foundation upon which all students can learn coding and computer science, sending a clear message that STEAM learning is a classroom priority, and one we must rely on teachers to convey year after year. If this vital confidence deficit isn’t tackled head on, the remaining solutions won’t really matter.

Next, make smart edtech purchases
Teachers can’t rely on textbooks alone to teach specific subjects. Children learn STEAM topics best through hands-on education, so a textbook may not provide the perspective or interactivity that students require to truly grasp important concepts. As a result, many U.S. teachers look to a variety of resources to help compile lesson plans—both online and offline.

Teachers tend to invest in useful products or platforms individually, but districts need to consider purchasing tools that will help everyone get on the same page. That being said, it’s important for school administrators to do their homework when choosing the right edtech products for their schools. Products that include both hardware and software are good investments. Hardware, alone, becomes outdated very quickly, so having a software component welcomes updates, remains current, and promises a longer shelf life—all key considerations for school districts operating on a tight budget.

Last but not least, incorporate coding as a part of every subject
Schools, teachers, and education companies need to do a better job in communicating that coding is for all students who are interested in all subjects—not just science. Coding is an essential skill for many careers, including some that may not be so obvious, like design, finance, and marketing. That’s why it’s so important to incorporate coding into lesson plans for every subject.

Shon Burton, chief executive officer of HiringSolved, believes that students who are comfortable around computers and understand some programming will have advantages in the future automated workplace, including creativity and critical thinking skills. I’m a firm that having an understanding of these concepts offers benefits across a variety of areas.

Spending STEM funds wisely
Providing cross-curriculum content and support for teachers that is both assessable and mapped to national standards is a key strategic move for schools considering where to use the money coming from the U.S. DoE grant or the private sector. Coding skills can be incorporated into art and history classes, as well as science and math. Helping students to become familiar with the principles of STEM in a variety of contexts and helping them integrate these skills into all that they do is invaluable.

So, how can we most efficiently use funds intended for coding education into U.S. classrooms? We need to prioritize proper teacher training, research and outfit the most appropriate edtech products for lesson plans, and devise curriculums that highlight the STEAM principles that are truly present in all school subjects. Whether it’s making the most of a local grant or receiving any fraction of a $300 million private tech giant investment, focusing on these key components when developing plans to better incorporate coding education into curriculums is sure to steer schools in the right direction and ensure that these funds aren’t put to waste.

About the Author:

Joachim Horn is the founder of SAM Labs. Horn has transformed the approach to toy and education design. The modular, connected SAM Labs toys are now found in homes and schools worldwide. They are at the forefront of interactive entertainment, combining digital gaming and innovative storytelling to create a toy that inspires every child to discover the fun of coding and creating. A mechanical engineering graduate from the Imperial College London and co-founder of the Imperial College Design Collective, he fused his passion for education, design, and tech to develop SAM Labs.

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