March 31, 2016 by Doug Napolitano-Cremin
My first day at the National Science Teachers of America’s national conference in Nashville started with an early morning bus pick up from my hotel. I was fortunate to be going to visit Stratford STEM Magnet High School which is only about 20 minutes drive away from Downtown, Nashville.
The tour of the school was incredibly interesting, with the focus on our short visit being the ‘pathways’ options available to pupils. We were treated to a visit to the Criminal Justice classrooms. Mock-ups of crime scenes filled one room. Another room was taken over with a court room set-up. We were also shown around some engineering labs and spoke to students in a number of classes. We spent a good amount of time also talking to the school’s Executive Principal, Dr Michael Steele, and two of the school’s Academy Principles Dr Jennifer Berry and Vincent Jones. The passion that these people had for the school and their pupils was infectious. Dr Steele is a very inspiring leader. Pupils and staff alike clearly held him in high regard. He demonstrated through his discussion with teachers in the tour group and with his interactions with pupils that he believed in having high expectations in all areas for all his pupils. A strict approach to behaviour was evident but this seemed to be built on mutual respect. A number of elements of the culture of the school was very unique to the American setting, but there were a few factors that the staff described as being key to the success of the school that could equally apply to schools in the UK:
- Working with outside agencies such as universities, businesses etc. was key to engaging pupils in STEM subjects. This work was continuous – not limited to specific events or ‘celebration weeks’. Staff discussed how this work enabled pupils to learn the skills needed to work in industry or build credit towards attending college. It also enabled pupils to put the content they were learning in context and engage pupils in the STEM subjects.
- Expectations of behaviour and academic performance were kept high despite the challenges many of the pupils at the school faced. Dr Steele exemplified this by stating that he constantly tells his staff they he wants the school to, ‘…be the first in everything we do.’
- A strong emphasis on well-being was key to the success of the school. Staff clearly knew and cared for their pupils an incredible amount. They were invested in their pupils’ lives. This emphasis on well-being was not just exclusive to pupils however; staff well-being was an important issue for Dr Steele. He described the importance of building a strong staff body and allowing staff to grow and develop as teachers, even if it meant them moving on to different roles.
In Science pupils also presented their work in the form of posters. The posters on display around the school were of a degree-level standard and they demonstrated the high expectations of pupils across the community. I really liked this idea and it will definitely be one that I look in to using within my own department.
There were clearly huge differences between the set-up and organisation of Stratford STEM Magnet High School and schools in the UK, but my brief visit showed me that there is a huge amount we can learn from colleagues in the States.
The afternoon was taken up with the ‘Global Conversations in Science Education’ conference. This was a really great opportunity to hear from some great educators from around the world. The topics being presented varied but the stand out’s for me were:
- Shaun Reason of the ASE describing how we can bring a Global Citizenship approach to teaching content in Science. He described some really fantastic examples that can be found here.
- Sue Dale Tunnicliffe described the work carried out with mothers in Bangladesh on helping them to talk to their children about the science involved in everyday tasks. She described how parents are often the first teachers of Science that children encounter. We therefore need to carry out more work to help parents have meaningful conversations about science with their children.
- Maaroof Fakhri from Labster described an incredible looking piece of simulation software that exposes pupils to realistic lab work. There are so many aspects to this software/website that could be of use to schools. I am particularly excited about exploring this website and looking at how we could use this at A-Level and also to stretch and challenge pupils at all levels.
The poster session was a great opportunity to network with people from across the world and also show off the work we have been doing in the Science department at my school, Ashmole Academy.
The day finished with a talk from America’s favourite Science guy, Bill Nye. Another inspirational person to see. It was interesting to see the level of excitement in the crowd, which was bigger than I have seen at any talk I have been to. The scenes at the start of the talk were more familiar at the start of a rock concert than a teaching conference keynote! It was a fantastic experience and has inspired me to develop my understanding of Planetary Science and see how I can bring this area of science in to my own lessons more often. Nye emphasised the importance of students developing strong scientific literacy skills, and also the power that we, as Science teachers, have to improve the lives of the young people that we work with.
Overall, a great first day in Nashville. Bring on Day Two!