If you were to ask a group of middle school students what STEM is, many would answer you confidently with one word: robotics. Though robotics is certainly a part of STEM—and is often used as an introduction to STEM due to its exciting, hands-on approach—STEM learning encompasses more than robotics or gaining knowledge about specific subjects, like math and science. It teaches essential skills that students need currently and to prepare for their future, such as problem-solving and critical thinking.
To dive more deeply into this topic, AVID met with Holbrook Junior High School Principal Cheri L. Grau to discuss her school’s STEM journey and why the middle grades are such a critical time for engaging students in STEM learning. Holbrook Junior High School, a Title I school, is located in Holbrook, Arizona. It has a student population comprised of 380 students in sixth through eighth grade, with more than 60% of students identifying as Native American. The school is part of Holbrook Unified School District #3, which is located in northern Arizona and spans approximately 1,500 square miles, bordering the Navajo Nation.
When students begin their middle school journey, what does their STEM knowledge base and exposure typically look like?
It’s minimal. Our elementary feeder schools here in town do summer STEM programs and some after-school clubs, but nothing to the extent of a class or a class elective, due to the nature of how elementary school is structured in general. It’s pretty foreign to our students.
What do your students like most about engaging in STEM-based activities?
They love the real-life research that goes into it. They love the hands-on projects. They love the building side of things with STEM. They like the process of, “This is all the planning we did—how did all of our planning work out? Did it work? Did it not work? Why? Why not?” They like going through that process. The students are really starting to pick that up on their own now, without [teachers] having to do a ton of prompting.
How does STEM exposure at the middle school level impact students?
Their ability to think critically is really enhanced through our STEM classes, through our STEM activities, through STEM exposure, and it opens them up to the fact that there’s so much out there. There’s so much beyond Holbrook Junior High. There’s so much beyond this bubble that we live in or that they know in their young lives right now. It helps to bring equity to all of our students and opens up their eyes to the world that’s out there—today’s global society.
How does STEM exposure help students outside of their STEM-focused classes?
You’re not just focusing on the science, technology, engineering, and math; it’s, “How . . . can it help apply in your science class but also in your English class?” because you have to prove a point in science, and you have to prove your point in English. I feel like there’s a lot of cross-curricular [application in] the way it makes connections. The bottom line is how students think and how they respond to problem-solving.
Recognizing the importance of STEM, AVID offers AVID STEM Connections®, which consists of lesson plans and ancillary materials to incorporate STEM experiences into any classroom. What were you hoping STEM Connections could help you accomplish in your school when you began using it last year?
Initially when I was interested in STEM Connections and bringing it in, it was really just all about STEM. I thought, “This would be really great for our STEM class.” It was very compartmentalized for me at that time.
As I spent more time looking at lessons and seeing how it can be utilized and is being utilized, I realized that this is another avenue for bringing AVID to all of our classes and exposure in STEM because not all of our students can take STEM, but we want to provide that equity and those opportunities for our students.
So, it started as something that would be really good to help boost our STEM program to something that would be really good for all of our students because it really opens their eyes and brings real life worldly awareness.
What changes have you seen in your students since starting STEM Connections lessons?
I would say more overall exposure to the real world—what’s out there. Also, how all their subjects tie together.
In what ways has STEM Connections prepared your students for high school?
Definitely in thinking critically! What I mean by that is our students are learning to ask questions. The students are starting to make sense of their own learning—their own knowledge—and what that looks like. They’re thinking about what other questions they have to ask, so they can answer their own questions, complete their projects, or … fully understand the lesson.
What changes have you seen in your teachers since they have started to integrate STEM learning into their classes?
I have seen them allow the students to do their own thinking. I have seen the teachers back off of answering their own questions. I’ve seen them teach students how to think instead of what to think.
Is there anything else you wanted to share?
Before we started this AVID journey and then brought in STEM Connections, our school was on School Improvement Plan with the state of Arizona. Since bringing in AVID, and going through a pandemic, we have actually moved out of school improvement—quite drastically. I know that AVID is a big part of that, including STEM Connections. Now our students are able to approach their state testing by taking these tests and being able to think more deeply, more critically, more broadly—breaking down what is really being asked of them, and I think that’s something that AVID and STEM Connections support.
AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a nonprofit organization that changes lives by helping schools shift to a more equitable, student-centered approach. AVID partners each year with more than 8,000 schools to help them close the opportunity gap and prepare millions of students for college, careers, and life. To learn more, visit www.AVID.org.
To address the need for STEM learning experiences, AVID developed AVID STEM Connections. STEM Connections lessons are designed to be used by educators without STEM backgrounds and allow for easy integration of STEM learning into any class or subject. These unique lessons help STEM experiences come alive in subjects like English, history, science, and more. Lessons also include extensions so they can be used in STEM classrooms.