As a new year gears up, Gov. Branstad's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math initiative is getting ready to implement many of the practices they spent the last year developing.
The $5 million STEM Initiative, signed by Gov. Branstad in July 2011, prepares students for future careers by teaching them critical thinking skills.
"STEM isn't about science, technology, engineering and math in isolation," Kari Webb, manager for the northwest Iowa region of STEM, said. "It's an integrated approach to problem solving and 21st century skills."
STEM works in part through providing grants to teachers, both "formal and non-formal educators," to help fund programming.
One main focus of STEM is to give the students "trial and error" assignments, allowing them to make mistakes and learn what went wrong.
"Traditional teaching is set up so there's never any failure," Webb, a former chemistry teacher, said. "There is so much more learning to be had if you allow students to have that trial and error period. Most of our projects are open-ended and inquiry-based."
She continued. "We need education experiences that are engaging and fun experiences rather than the conception that science only happens in a tidy laboratory facility."
After STEM was launched, the advisory council split the state into six regions. Iowa Lakes Community College is the hub for the northwest Iowa region. Other hubs include Drake University, Iowa State University, University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa.
STEM, though designed for specific disciplines and, therefore, age groups, isn't meant to exclude any student. Many of the concepts are now geared toward elementary students, who wouldn't otherwise have had the experience.
"Engineering is not something middle schools or elementary schools are generally comfortable teaching," Webb said. "We had to get [the teachers] to see that even though they're not engineers themselves, they can teach the framework by allowing their students to process problem solving skills and critical thinking. We're not asking elementary teachers to teach calculus."
In addition, STEM is designed to bring concepts learned in the sciences to other fields.
"In our day and age, I can't think of a single field of study that doesn't use STEM," Webb said. "Even artistic endeavors: we all use technology. There is no art form that does not use STEM in its implementation."
While STEM does focus on schools, Webb noted that its impact is designed for a much broader radius.
"It's not just about schools and educators and teachers," she said. "We're asking business professionals to partner because we want this to be something that has an impact both in schools and beyond."
With a wide-ranging impact, Webb hopes that STEM will help boost Iowa's economy and financial standing, noting that Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds described the initiative as "directly tied to the economic future."
At this point, Webb lists the two priorities for STEM as "student engagement" and "student achievement." The advisory council plans to evaluate their progress in two ways: by surveying participating students on their experience and by testing the students to measure their achievement.
"It's so much fun to see what's happening," Webb said.