Wednesday, December 12, 2012

STEM: Teaching Process Over Outcome

By Guest Blogger, Cathie Mostovoy of Mostovoy Strategies

Cathie Mostovoy

The thousands of people who gathered recently as the Space Shuttle Endeavor journeyed through the streets of Los Angeles to its resting place at the California Science Center offer clear evidence of the degree to which we as a society, consciously or unconsciously, derive our national identity from a tradition of innovation and technological progress.  After a decade of educational policy preoccupied with attaining targeted achievement levels in reading, writing and math, there isn’t a lot of mystery behind the current resurgence of interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs. STEM is the hot topic in education at the moment, yet getting quality programs off the ground is presenting quite a challenge. What’s the problem?  

“How LIAS Can Strengthen the STEM Movement” (LIAS blog, October 3, 2012) provides a good overview of issues involved and provides points for more in-depth discussion. While a central point of Sam Piha’s Q&A with Carol Tang, Director of the Coalition for Science After School, is that afterschool programs, particularly those that incorporate the LIAS principles, can support STEM education, Tang also explains that well-intentioned programming efforts fall short when “educational materials selected are not matched well with the program's mission, strengths, staff skills or audience.” This reminder that there are multiple factors that can create barriers to success is incredibly important. From the list Tang provides, I believe staff skills may be one of the most critical.

As Ms. Tang notes early in the conversation “we have to be honest and admit that students in school are not receiving science instruction anymore given other priorities.” It is critically important to recognize this isn’t just a problem today. The demise of in-school science programs dates back to 2001 when reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act tied standardized test scores to federal school funding. (Ironically, the act called for schools to employ scientifically-based teaching methods and scientifically-based standardized testing, yet at the same time effectively pushed science programs out of many schools.) This is significant because afterschool program leaders, the staff members who have the most direct contact with program participants, are often college students or recent graduates. These are young people whose elementary, middle and high school years also coincide with this era of missing science programs. Their college educations prepared them to enter a teaching world that emphasizes outcomes over process. And, they came of age in a society that values instant gratification. Teaching in manner that aligns with LIAS principles simply doesn’t align with their own experiences.

During my years running an agency that provides afterschool programs, we interviewed and hired many bright and passionate young people, but it was difficult to find staff members who were comfortable being inventive and experimental. The majority felt most at-home with sequential learning; they liked lesson plans that moved from A to B to C with some specific expected outcome related to each step. And, I was often struck by how hard it could be to get them to think a situation through critically and suggest corrective actions; things were either working or they were not. These things just did not come naturally to them. That is a challenge we need to address, because if teachers aren’t comfortable exploring their students won’t be either.

So, when I think about how LIAS can strengthen the STEM movement, I think that one important way is for LIAS principles to be incorporated into professional development programs. There are many intelligent, dedicated, service-oriented young people in the afterschool ranks, we just need to provide them with the right technical assistance. The success of STEM and how quickly that success can be achieved may hinge on understanding this. 

Cathie Mostovoy is a proven executive leader with more than 25 years’ experience administering youth development and educational programs.  Her expertise is in organizational growth, strategic partnerships, and program and leadership development. As the past Chief Executive Officer for Woodcraft Rangers, Inc., a non-profit organization in Los Angeles she utilized her growth strategy plan and natural assessment skills to grow the organization from under $1 million dollars to over $11 million and increased services to over 17,000 young people. Much of her success as a leader in her work is due to her ability to leverage funding, build strong relationships and maximize youth and community involvement.

Currently she is the Vice-President and Past President for the California School Age Consortium, member of the leadership team for the California Afterschool Network and Chair for the Older Youth Committee. Her past history of service includes serving as State Ambassador for the National After School Alliance, Ambassador for the National VERB, Chair of the Los Angeles Partnership for After School Enrichment and is member of numerous other initiatives and committees for children, families and the community. 

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