According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 65 percent of kids today will grow up to have a job that doesn’t yet exist. Those jobs will come from fields that focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics — areas where New Jersey students once led the country, but where it has since fallen behind.
“Back when the lightbulb was created we were clearly the leader. I don’t think we’re viewed as that now,” said Ann Borowiec, co-chair for the New Jersey Campaign for Achievement Now (JerseyCAN), a nonprofit that focuses on education and includes former Gov. Thomas Kean on its board.
JerseyCAN released a report in October that detailed the state of STEM education in the state. Although New Jersey ranks toward the top of the list in reading and math, the state sits at 24th for eighth graders’ and fourth graders’ proficiency in science as compared to other states, according to rankings released by The National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The report indicated New Jersey’s lackluster performance was due an outdated approach to STEM education combined with inequitable outcomes among the different student demographics. As the labor market continues to demand higher standards for technological knowledge, the state’s ability to educate residents in the sciences has become an economic issue it can’t afford to ignore, the report said.
JerseyCAN’s report included several recommendations for how the state could effectively improve STEM education. The merit of many of these recommendations are encapsulated by the story of Freehold Township, a school district led by Superintendent Ross Kasun, who began to embrace a new approach to education roughly three years ago.
“We tried to act like a startup,” said Kasun. “[School districts] want to make sure every school is doing the same exact thing and [there are] no outliers, but the whole world is messy. It’s so complex and changing at an exponential rate. We’re going to become obsolete unless we start acting differently.”
Kasun, who was named Superintendent of the Year in 2017 by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and Superintendent of the Year for Central Jersey in 2016, has advocated for autonomy over standardization by giving educators and students more involvement in their education programs.
His team believes students need to become the “leaders of their own learning,” a saying inspired by a book by the same name that advocates for a philosophical change in educational institutions. Instead of having teachers dictate the method and rate of new information, students are encouraged to engage in how they learn with looser restrictions on what the correct approach should be.
This shift in approach benefits STEM education by being more hands-on, but Freehold Township broadened its view to include the arts as well. Like many other schools across the U.S., the school emphasizes the arts in addition to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which broadens the concept to “STEAM.”
The hands-on approach is encouraged by “makerspaces,” designated areas of classrooms or educational institutions where students have access to various tools to tackle STEAM problems assigned in class. These examples are meant to capture students’ interest and test their ability to iterate on new knowledge.
For example, one school in Freehold Township assigned middle school students the task of creating robots that can move objects around. These classroom creations face off against each other in a competition where two robots battle to push the other robot off an elevated platform. Not every design is perfect, but that’s part of the process.
“We try to impress on students [of all grade levels] it’s OK to fail,” said Lisa Force, a STEAM teacher at Freehold Township’s Dwight D. Eisenhower School. “If you do fail, we want you to keep trying. Trial and error is key.”
Kasun pointed out many of the assignments in the old model of education tasked students with “busy work” that didn’t prepare them for the working world. Projects that involve battling robots or designing a hypothetical lunar colony allow students to stretch their creative thinking ability and familiarize themselves with solving problems as they arise.
Students are not the only ones who have to think creatively in this new model. One of the hurdles that must be overcome to implement widespread STEM education, according to JerseyCAN, is finding qualified candidates who are willing to teach it on a public school teacher’s salary.
People like the Eisenhower School’s Force, who began her career as a media specialist over a decade ago but had a background in technology she wanted to pursue. As part of the district’s strategy to best utilize technology, Force was allowed to attend workshops at Rutgers University that explained how technology and makerspaces can be used to benefit education.
The school district paid for her to attend the workshops, many of which took place during school hours. When she wasn’t attending them, she watched YouTube videos explaining the concepts.
Pamela Nathan, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Freehold Township Schools, said people like Force are the kinds of educators institutions need to compete.
“I’d look for those who are willing to learn, regardless of their background,” said Nathan. “This team was that, they were willing and wanting to learn.”
That willingness to learn wasn’t out of pure luck. Part of Kasun and Nathan’s strategy for implementing institutional change across the district was by involving the team in understanding why the change was necessary and let them take ownership over its execution.
The district follows guiding principles, such as creating “leaders of their own learning,” or allowing failure and iteration, but the widespread success has come from developing individual models in school classrooms before expanding them out across the district.
“It’s these interactions between autonomously built pilots from a common understanding that leads to this kind of systemic change,” said Nathan.
The two feel confident they have changed their district’s method of thinking for the better and for the foreseeable future.
“Pam and I could leave tomorrow, it’s never going to go back the way it was,” said Kasun.