EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
MARBLE FALLS — Once upon a time, education was fairly uncomplicated. Students walked into class, took a seat, and the teacher stood at the front of the room and taught them “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.”
However, times have changed, and the future is unclear. To help students prepare for careers and jobs that might not even exist yet, Marble Falls Independent School District is introducing its STEAM Academy starting next August for incoming sixth-graders.
STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. The concept has become synonymous with innovative learning.
“This really started about a year ago when we began to engage our community to shape our schools,” MFISD Superintendent Chris Allen said. That included parents, business and community leaders, teachers, and anyone else interested in the district’s mission. “What we learned from our community (was) there were some things they wanted to make sure students were learning.”
Those things were critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.
The community isn’t alone in advocating for these skills. MFISD Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Wes Cunningham studies what business leaders across the country are seeking in an educated workforce.
Employees hired by companies such as Apple and Google have the same desired skills that top the list from community leaders and teachers, Cunningham said.
“We get exposed to chambers, business leaders, and they’re telling us these are the skills our kids need as they prepare for a future, a future where we don’t know what types of careers students today will have,” he said.
In 2015, The Economist Intelligence Unit published the report “Driving the Skills Agenda: Preparing Students for the Future.” It looked at the extent that skills being taught in schools around the globe are changing and if those skills still meet the needs of employers and society. Google for Education sponsored the study, for which The EIU conducted four global surveys of business leaders, teachers, and students in secondary and post-secondary schools across 25 countries.
When business leaders were asked to choose the three most critical skills for employees from a list of 14, problem solving, team working, communication, critical thinking, and creativity ranked as the top five, respectively.
While business leaders are clear on what skills they want their workers to possess, educators are preparing students for a foggy future.
“One of the things we hear is we’re educating students for careers that aren’t even around now, and we don’t know what those careers will look like,” Allen said.
The key, he explained, is teaching students transferable skills they can apply in a career even as demand and needs change.
That’s not the only hurdle.
“We have what the parents and business leaders are telling us what students need, and then we have the state accountability testing,” Allen lamented.
Educators must walk a tightrope, teaching students what they need for the future while preparing them to pass standardized tests.
Allen described it as being pulled in two different directions.
This is where the STEAM Academy comes in.
The plan is to create the academy at Spicewood Elementary School because it has available space. The program would be open to current students entering sixth grade for the 2018-19 academic year. Students would complete the regular middle school registration then apply to the academy if they are interested. The district would limit the first-year enrollment to 50-60 students to the full-day academy.
Allen, Cunningham, and other district officials have visited several STEAM academies and campuses. One thing Cunningham noted is most of these programs separate the STEAM component from traditional academics.
That’s not part of MFISD’s plan.
“What we’re looking at is integrating all the pieces,” Cunningham said.
The district proposes using an innovative block learning method made up of:
• humanities block, including philosophy and logic;
• integrated math-science block;
• problem-based learning laboratory block;
• elective block, such as digital art, music theory and appreciation, and musical theater;
• “specials” rotation, such as physical education, athletics, and health and biomechanics;
• and STEAM and problem-based learning.
This falls in line with what researchers with The EIU learned through their study.
The study authors wrote, “In order to be effective, (21st-century skills) must be integrated into every subject so that skills development becomes inseparable from the sharing of knowledge.”
While STEAM, or STEM, has become a popular educational concept over the past several years, Allen said its implementation at MFISD will not be at the expense of other studies.
He pointed out that subjects such as English, social studies, and history remain extremely important and relevant.
“Humanities, they remind us what it is to be human,” Allen said.
The Marble Falls academy also will add arts into the mix (STEAM rather than STEM). Educators are realizing how important the arts are to a well-rounded education.
Cunningham pointed back to two of the skills community and business leaders said students need: creativity and communication.
“Businesses talk about ‘thinking outside the box’, and when students are exposed to the arts, it helps them explore their creativity,” Cunningham said. “Art helps with thinking in a way other (subjects) don’t. Art helps bring the aesthetics into everything, but it’s also a way of communicating.
“Art helps communicate ideas and concepts that maybe you can’t with just words,” he added.
Allen pointed out that the arts have impacted people’s lives for years, pulling out his iPhone as an example of aesthetic innovation that combines seamlessly with science, technology, engineering, and math.
“What will continue to drive the American economy is innovation,” Allen said. “We need kids coming out of school with high-level thinking skills, who are innovative, creative, and want to keep exploring possibilities.”
MFISD is holding a public meeting about the STEAM Academy at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, in the Marble Falls Middle School cafeteria, 1511 Pony Circle. For those who can’t attend, officials will stream the meeting over Facebook Live.
Go to marblefallsisd.org to review the district’s frequently asked questions and for more information on the STEAM Academy.