“Not Science Fairs!” is the title of Superintendent Elizabeth Alvarez‘s ringing endorsement of science fairs in a new book by Latino education leaders, “From STEM to STEAM: Latino Perspectives.” Alvarez, leader of Forest Park School District 91 near Chicago, explains that, in her experience, the sometimes stress-inducing annual events have been a missed opportunity to engage students more deeply in the scientific process.
“When I came in as a principal, or even when I was a teacher, any time people talked about the science fair, it was almost as if they were in pain,” says Alvarez, who is joined by 10 other Latino educators who co-wrote the book published by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents. “There was a lot of feeling about science fairs that they weren’t legit.”
Among the concerns was that parents were doing much of the work on science projects. Alvarez, however, sees that as an opportunity for parents to bond with their children. Another mistake is requiring students to change their projects every year even though in the real world, scientists work on the same projects for years. Science fairs have also too often taught students that there is a “right and wrong” to their experiments.
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When she was a principal, she also made another big change: She made sure students as young as kindergarteners were participating in science fairs. “You want to bring a love of science from kindergarten,” she says.
“Science is in our blood,” Alvarez adds. “When you think about the Aztecs and Mayans—that’s what gets forgotten in our history.”
‘Advancing student outcomes one decision at a time’
When Superintendent Rene Sanchez was the principal of Cesar E. Chavez High School in Houston ISD, he went “wall-to-wall” with STEM and career tech by creating academies in engineering, health science, digital media and environmental science.
The 3,300-student high school, where 95% of the learners were experiencing poverty, was completely redesigned with CTE as the guiding light, explains Sanchez, who is now superintendent of the Champlain Valley School District in Vermont.
The results were dozens of students becoming certified as pharmacy and veterinary technicians and hundreds more participating in internships. “The biggest takeaway is knowing what your community is interested in, what their capacity is and where would you like to go,” notes Alvarez, whose chapter is titled, “Advancing Student Outcomes One Decision at a Time, Using Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).”
“If we are expected to ensure our students are prepared for college, careers and life, we need to make sure every decision we make every day is pushing toward those outcomes,” he concludes.
Finding STEAM funding
Schools and districts don’t often have the capacity to hire a robust grant-writing team. That’s why district leaders must be out in the community networking, fundraising and connecting with local businesses that can support STEM supports, says Nury Castillo Crawford, the executive director of youth re-engagement at the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin. Her chapter, “How to Fund STEAM,” highlights one skill upon which K12 leaders need to improve.
“One of the easiest ways to get started is in your own circle and learning how to champion the work you’re doing,” Crawford advises. “Many times as educators we don’t seek accolades but we have to do a better job at celebrating with others about the work we’re doing.”
The other chapters in the book are:
- “What STEAM Means for Latino Youth” by Tatyana Ali
- “STEAM and Elementary English Learners” by Juan Coìrdova
- “STEAM in the Middle: A Look at Successful STEAM Initiatives in Middle Grades” by Washington B. Collado, PhD
- “Reconnecting Roots: The Importance of STEAM Education for Latino High School Students” by Dr. Christopher Bonn
- “Words of Encouragement, Accessibility and Preparation: Opening Doors to Post-Secondary STEAM Education” by Leticia Ordaz
- “STEAM Assessment and Accountability” by Elda Garcia, PhD
- “The Metaverse in STEAM Schools: Theory, Practice, Sustainability, and Evolution – A Latino Perspective” by Zandra Jo Galvaìn
- “Interstellar: The Space Between the Stars” by Dr. Maria Armstrong