Redefining STEM

‘It’s OK to fail:’ How Indiana teachers are rethinking STEM for the real world

PHOTO: David Marbaugh
Teachers Paula Manchess (left) and Heidi Wilkinson (right) work to detect counterfeit medicines by creating a process to identify the correct color, shape, branding and purity of their samples.

In Kraig Kitts’ biology classes, it’s OK to fail.

“That’s science. That’s the nature of it,” said Kitts, a science teacher at Center Grove High School. “Sometimes we don’t know. As teachers, we have a lot of pressures that everything works, every time, 100 percent.”

This is the message Kitts wants to send to his students. It’s also the message he wants to relay to other Indiana teachers.

Kitts is the mastermind behind the Lilly Experience for Teachers in STEM, a two-day workshop for teachers of STEM — or science, technology, engineering, and math — designed to redefine the field by connecting math and science curriculum to real-world applications.

He interned in Eli Lilly and Company’s structural biology department last summer through a special program for science teachers. As an educator, Kitts was shocked to see how his own classroom lessons reflected in the daily jobs of Lilly’s scientists and engineers.

He immediately wanted to share the real-world applications of STEM with other educators — and his students, too

“I think that’s a big one for me is teaching kids that aren’t honors or AP … that they’re just regular kids,” Kitts said.“Giving them the opportunities to apply real-world skills in places where they may not have an interest in STEM before, but they can be like, ‘OK that’s cool.’”

About 75 teachers and 50 Lilly employees from across the state joined Kitts on Tuesday and Wednesday for the inaugural event. They developed STEM lesson plans drawn from real-world examples and received a number of tools and resources to take back to their students.

Albert White, Lilly’s director of operations and chief of staff, said STEM is about more than being the next doctor or engineer — it’s about life skills.

“STEM is about cultivating curiosity for our children,” said White, who helped plan the event. “It’s also about developing critical thinking skills as well as problem-solving. When you look at the different roles throughout, there are opportunities for all children.”

To understand those opportunities, educators toured Lilly’s manufacturing facilities and discovery laboratories, interacting with individuals at all levels of the company.

White said that by sharing the expertise and exposing teachers to the real-world components, he hopes educators can help students escape the mindset that STEM is only about becoming a doctor or engineer.

That’s teacher Heidi Wilkinson’s plan. Wilkinson, who is preparing to transfer from Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington to Northrop High School in Fort Wayne, recently took a group of STEM students to Lilly’s Indianapolis headquarters where they could see their coursework come to life.

“This is what the subject matter looks like in a job,” she said. “All these things that they’re learning, they actually have an application. Sometimes the best stuff you teach them is the stuff that’s not the required curriculum, but it’s the stuff you let them just get curious about.”

Wilkinson’s team created a lesson plan that focuses on critical thinking and working efficiently. Students will be given a mixture of balls that all look the same but have different weights. They must create a process to efficiently separate the balls into different weight classes.

“We’ve seen so much here that when Lilly creates a chemical they want to extract for some medicine, they have to make sure they have the right chemical,” Wilkinson said. “They have to make sure they have the right chemical and be able to separate it and take all the impurities out.”

At the end of the experiment, students will digest how the experiment can be applied to real life.

Wilkinson said she plans to implement the lesson plan in her own classroom to help students  gain a vision and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Oftentimes, Wilkinson said students complain about a lesson and ask how it applies to their future. Because educators find themselves on a schedule to meet content standards, it’s difficult for teachers to provide an explicit vision.

“To be able to give them that, whether it be, ‘What does this look like as a career?’ or ‘Hey, this is how it’s applicable,’ or ‘Hey, you can actually ask questions about this’ — that pulls them in,” Wilkinson said.

Both Kitts and Wilkinson agree that STEM education is taking a turn in a new direction. While meeting standards still matters, they want to adjust their focus on the skill sets that come as a result of STEM.

Perseverance and a willingness to learn, for example, are traits employers at Lilly look for, Kitts said.

“Someone asked, ‘What do you look for when you hire somebody?’” Kitts said. “[The chief science officer] said a willingness to learn. That’s the guy that’s at the top of the company.”

And on the floor, Kitts asked an engineer whether he ever feels overwhelmed at his job. The engineer said it was his first job out of college, and while he didn’t know a lot about the job at first, he was able to learn along the way.

“To see that from the top to the guy that’s doing the work, that really is valued is a big one because we want our kids to just be active learners,” Kitts said.

“You don’t have to be the A-plus-plus student in AP Biology. You can be the C-plus student in biology, but as long as you try and you have that willingness to learn and you’re interested in science, you don’t have to go to the top, but you can come out here and work and have a good career.”

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.