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Why Getting Students Involved With STEM Matters

It’s time for this very important acronym to be front and centre in the classroom. Find out what some private schools are doing to get their students engaged with STEM.
By the time we arrive in Ottawa, visiting the nation’s capital one weekend in May, the kids’ patience is wearing thin. A nearly five-hour trek from Toronto (yes, we’re forced to pull over at more than one rest stop along the highway), our girls, Addyson, then 9, and Peyton, then 7, want nothing but Timbits and a swim at the hotel pool. But splashing around isn’t on my agenda—just yet, anyway. On our short visit, we’ll explore Ingenium Canada’s trio of fun and educational museums: the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum.Admittedly, my motivation here is twofold. The kids love a good road trip, they think hotels are cool and they’re looking forward to seeing family, including three canine cousins. But I’ve got something else up my sneaky sleeve—Addyson and Peyton are very much into math and science in school. They don’t get this from me; my short-lived idea of becoming a marine biologist was squashed in high school when I barely got by in Grade 11 math and biology. (Goodbye dreams of saving the sea turtles.) I’m acutely aware of my downfall in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, but I’m just as aware of my girls’ impressive skills and want to foster their interests as much as I can.

Three minutes into our tour of ZOOM, the Children’s Innovation Zone at the Science and Technology Museum, my kids are immersed in all things STEM—they turn into little scientists, putting hypotheses to the test in this self-directed lab where there’s no right or wrong way to investigate. It’s something Catherine Emond, an education and interpretation officer at Ingenium, says she’s seen thousands of times. She tells us that even though the exhibit is for kids eight and younger, older siblings often come in and get just as wrapped up in the experiments as the little ones. When the girls beeline to a cool-looking puzzle-building centre, Emond talks about the element of surprise and experimentation. “These activities offer open-ended exploration and allow visitors to not only choose how they’ll use the equipment, but also how they’ll test and then alter their theories free of gender stereotypes or biases. This is STEM in action,” she says.

Why is STEM important?

STEM education is important, but less than half of teens are completing science courses through to Grade 12, according to a report published by Let’s Talk Science, a London, Ont.-based organization aiming to motivate and empower youth using the STEM subjects. STEM education not only drives the economy through the promotion of business innovation, but it also increases the employability, as well as the in-demand critical thinking and analytical skills of students who pursue STEM studies.

The good news is, some private schools are ensuring their students get up close and personal with STEM subjects, putting science and math front and centre in their curricula. St. Margaret’s in Victoria is the first (and only) all-girl STEM school in the country. At this school STEM is about more than the acronym—it’s an inquiry-based philosophy that revolves around question, observation, reflection and communication. The school starts STEM in junior kindergarten using play-based learning and outdoor exploration. “This learning is supported at all levels and across all disciplines,” says their site. “Graduates of St. Margaret’s School will be imaginative thinkers possessing the skills, abilities and confidence to work collaboratively in developing innovative responses to complex problems.”

Dianne Lever is the head of elementary at Webber Academy in Calgary. She says the school’s focus on these subjects is also important from a young age, adding all students need to be curious about the world around them. “Hands-on guided exploration shows them that they can contribute thoughtful and novel ideas. Giving them experiences which build confidence is crucial. We encourage all our students to explore areas that ignite their interest and don’t even give much credence to the fact that some areas are typically male-dominated,” she says. “It’s really just encouragement, presenting a variety of opportunities from a very young age and always having a growth mindset.”

STEM in the middle school program at Pickering College in Newmarket, Ont., is full of interesting and fun ways to get students interested in inquiry and experimentation. Their WaterDocs Action Project uses filmmaking as a way to look at local water issues, and must use science, geography, language, math, arts and technology to complete the project. They also build and wire a model house to show their understanding of energy and electricity.

The program at Elmwood School in Ottawa is just as unique and engaging. “As a girls’ school, we provide a unique learning environment, free from the gender stereotypes, lack of confidence and risk aversion that can have girls opting out of these subjects as soon as they are able,” says Jennifer Irwin- Jackson, the school’s executive director of advancement and community relations. “Fifty-percent of our 2019 graduating class are going on to pursue STEM programs at university.” Elmwood’s Fab Lab maker space and newly opened university-level science labs give students access to all the tools, equipment and materials they need to become passionate in STEAM subjects—“adding the A for arts into the STEM mix gives students a more well-rounded view of their world.” Irwin- Jackson says the focus is on collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. “Confidence and involvement in STEM is essential for all career pathways.”

Learn the acronyms

STEM and STEAM are the more common acronyms you’ll see for science, math and technology studies, but these are a few more some schools use.

GEMS: Girls in engineering, math and science

BEMS: Boys in engineering, math and science

STREM: Science, technology, robotics, engineering and math

AMSEE: Applied math, science, engineering and entrepreneurship

STEMM: Science, technology, engineering, math and medicine

Originally published in 2019 Private School Guide.

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