With report after report touting the American economy’s need for STEM workers, school districts across the country have rushed to roll out STEM and STEAM initiatives. As is often the case in education these days, though, specific subject knowledge is less important than broader skills such as digital literacy, problem-solving, and social skills. In this article, a superintendent and two teachers talk about how they incorporate STEM into a well-rounded, modern education.

Building a Community of Readers

Dr. Ruben Alejandro, Superintendent

At Weslaco ISD in Texas, we serve a highly mobile population of 17,500 students. Our students are 98.5% Hispanic, 86% economically disadvantaged, and 30% migrant. Roughly 30% of Weslaco students are English language learners (ELLs). One way we are preparing our kids for college and careers is by creating and fostering a community of readers.

We are preparing kids for an uncertain future. One thing we do know is that our average student will change careers seven times in his or her lifetime. They need to be ready with the skill-set for jobs that will be available in five to 10 years. The data shows us that many of the jobs we know today won’t exist or at least won’t be in demand when our kids are ready for the workforce.

To give our students the best possible chance at success in a changing world, when I became superintendent of schools in the summer of 2012, I put together an incredible team of administrators, parents, and teachers to create a vision for our district called “Empowering 21st-Century Learners”. Our students are learning communication and collaboration skills as well as creative and critical thinking through project-based learning. With these 21st-century skills, if they want to, they can go from being plumbers to lawyers over the course of their lifetimes.

Additionally, we introduced robotics and STEAM starting in kindergarten, and are now including 3- and 4-year-olds. With the help of an engineer, our youngest students are building a Mars rover—a modular car that they can put together and drive. The rover will have a handle that controls a claw so students can learn by picking up blocks with numbers and letters on them. We will have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and systems engineers to help build the rover and take it through an obstacle course. As far as I know, nobody in the world is bringing this level of STEAM and robotics to 3- and 4-year-olds.

We have a strong focus on early learning, and a big part of that focus is on early literacy. Two and a half years ago, the Weslaco schools started using myON for K-8 reading, and worked with the company to launch an initiative called “Zero to Three: Weslaco Reads,” so kids who are 0–3 can download books and read them, too. The program highlights and pronounces words, and you can change the speed of reading so even the youngest kids can read at their own pace. Recently we extended this three-year initiative for another three years, and we have even been able to provide literacy workshops to other communities.

On top of this, all of our campuses constantly teach digital citizenship. One of our campuses is a Common Sense Digital Citizenship Certified School, and we are working to get all of our campuses certified.

Exploring Careers in Eighth Grade

Lydia Withrow, English Teacher

At Horace Mann Middle School, we have what’s called Basic Skills class. In this class, each teacher chooses a performance task from the hundreds of options offered by Defined STEM, an online curriculum supplement. They spend three weeks focused on a cross-curricular, holistic project that not only tests students’ cognitive ability, but also teaches them life skills and allows for hands-on career exploration. When students complete the task, they rotate and start a new project with a new teacher. In 18 weeks, students complete six in-depth projects.

As an English teacher, I’m constantly trying to think of ways to incorporate STEM skills like problem-solving, formulas, and tech into my word-filled classroom. For example, I love CSI and the detailed processes that go into solving a crime, so I created a Crime Scene Investigator lesson. I thought, “What is the best way to give my students hands-on experience when they obviously can’t go to a real crime scene?” Soon, the stairway of our school turned into a life-size crime scene complete with caution tape, splattered fake blood, and a lone shoe next to a body outlined with spray paint. I’ll never forget my student’s faces when they walked into the elaborate scene.

Using graph paper, they had to draw the scene to scale, placing each blood splatter and piece of evidence in the correct area. Using the Defined STEM task materials, each group of students became experts in areas including bite-mark analysis, lifting fingerprints using a fingerprint kit from the local police department, and collecting DNA samples. Each specialist group then presented their findings to the class so every student was able to learn different aspects of analyzing a crime scene. The class prepared its evidence into a full crime report as if it was going to be analyzed in court. To solve the crime as a team, they used skills from all subjects, including collaborative problem-solving, making precise measurements, creative writing, and presenting their research and findings to the class.

The Basic Skills rotation allows students to explore new careers they may have never known about. For example, when we started the crime scene lesson, students had no idea solving a crime involved so many people, from investigators to local police officers to the FBI to the BCA to forensic scientists and ballistics specialists. In their minds, everyone was a cop. By actually acting out each part in the scene, students were able to envision themselves as adults working in a career. Because of the lesson, they can truly say they have as close to hands-on experience as they can get (as an eighth-grader.)

While we don’t want our children growing up too fast (that’s the mom in me talking) we do want to expose them to as many opportunities as possible so they’re able to choose the path that fits them best. We also want students to be thinking about their future far before they’re seniors in high school.

Doing Science Is Better Than Simply Teaching it

Vicky Gorman, Science Teacher

New Jersey has adopted the Common Core, which stresses literacy in the science classroom, yet many science curricula do not adequately address literacy skills and reading non-fiction for content and use in research. In addition, science articles for middle schoolers are often either above or below reading levels and do not address the subject you are currently teaching. My seventh- and eighth-grade students needed a reading source that was informational, fun, and broad-based.

This year, I've used Kids Discover Online for a mega-literacy unit on reading for comprehension, note-taking, study guide creation, and as a springboard for further research. We’ve covered five subjects, including a project where we used satellite imagery and remote sensing to identify changes in landscape due to extreme weather events. After this latest one, students have become comfortable identifying main ideas and motivated to research concepts on their own.

STEM, by design, is well-rounded, if taught properly. When you view a unit, it should contain the S + T + E + M. In addition, it should be authentic training which could go beyond the classroom and really pique students’ interest. Skills such as written and verbal communication, small-group collaboration, problem-solving, scientific literacy, computer literacy, and social skills are important to our students. I find that students need the most support with problem-solving skills, patience, and motivation. Combine that with the fact many science teachers only “teach” and not “do” science, and you are left with something missing in the classroom. Teachers manufacture lessons instead of letting current science drive the curriculum. STEM should replace science in schools. We should all be STEM teachers.

A funny story: Two years ago, after a literacy unit, my seventh-period students stopped the class to inform me that I’m not really a science teacher. They said I teach math, language arts, and social studies through science. A lively class discussion ensued, and they came up with the word “Sloscimatics.” So I started to introduce myself as a Sloscimatics teacher. In fact, I also teach engineering and include basic computer science in my lessons. But can you imagine the word “Sloscimatics” with the added disciplines? I think I’ll just introduce myself as a STEM teacher. It’s easier to say and it means the same thing!


Dr. Ruben Alejandro has worked for Weslaco ISD since 1977, in positions including chemistry and biology teacher, district technology curriculum coordinator, federal programs director, assistant superintendent, and deputy superintendent. He was named superintendent of schools in 2012. He can be reached at mailto:superintendent@wisd.us.

Lydia Withrow is an eighth-grade English teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, WV. She cane be reached at lwithrow@mail.kana.k12.wv.us.

Vicky Gorman teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at Medford Memorial Middle School in Medford, NJ. She can be reached at Vgorman@medford.k12.nj.us.