GreenSTEM: Inspiring and empowering learners to change the world

IStock_000017174851_SmallHow do we teach our students to pursue a line of inquiry that connects personal, community, and global decisions to an understanding of relevant science, technology, engineering, and math?  “GreenSTEM” is an engaging and innovative approach for both students and teachers.

In an effort to distinguish traditional science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs from those with a focus on ecology and sustainability, some educators have recently been adding “green” to STEM programs. The concept is so new that a standard definition of GreenSTEM—one that fuses the real-world connections intrinsic to STEM learning with the deeper concept of sustainability—has yet to be penned.

If “… going green means to live life, as an individual as well as a community, in a way that is friendly to the natural environment and is sustainable for the earth,” as the all-recycling-facts.com website states, then GreenSTEM programs would incorporate science content, technology tools, engineering design, and math applications into problem-based projects, which have the goals of conserving natural resources and energy; reducing pollution, consumption, and waste; and protecting the health of our ecosystems.

On a recent tour of a few Colorado Green Ribbon schools, the characteristics of GreenSTEM were evident, supporting what I know from my own GreenSTEM teaching experience. The entire school culture reflected the principles of a GreenSTEM environment, with common themes that were clearly woven throughout presentations by students, teachers, principals, and superintendents. GreenSTEM characteristics extended outward to the physical appearance of schoolrooms and grounds, and even to messages on signage and t-shirts worn by students and staff.

These themes created a mosaic image of the GreenSTEM characteristics:

  • Relevant, engaging project-based learning that blends the latest best-practices in science, technology, engineering, and math;
  • Student-driven sustainable projects that create innovative thinkers;
  • Unique STEM projects that address each school’s unique indoor and outdoor environment, and broader community needs;
  • Green job connections through pathways to business partnerships and higher education;
  • Life-changing and empowering service-learning for students, teachers, parents, and community; and
  • Whole-child and whole-school passion for being lifelong learners and citizen scientists.

At McREL, we are working on creating a clear, standard definition of GreenSTEM and building a GreenSTEM educator support network. One useful resource to begin the conversation is a one-page “STEM and Our Planet Infographic,” created by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). 

The NEEF also provides an online resource center for GreenSTEM ideas, discussion, and support. To explore these resources, visit their “Greening STEM Learning Center.” 

To learn more about GreenSTEM and follow our progress  in developing tools, resources, and professional development opportunities to help educators plan for and implement GreenSTEM, follow @STEM_McREL on Twitter, or visit our STEM resources page on our website.

Ready to start? Join us for a two-day workshop at McREL, “GreenSTEM: Inspiring and Empowering Learners to Change the World,” on June 11–12, 2015, to begin the process of building your own GreenSTEM program.

Contact Laura Arndt or Anne Tweed for more information about McREL’s GreenSTEM initiative.


Larndt_LThumbMcREL consultant Laura Arndt taught science and GreenSTEM education at the elementary and high school level for 16 years. Now at McREL, Laura develops science curriculum and professional development models, and offers expertise on STEM program development in both formal and informal education settings.


Directive vs. collaborative leadership: Which is more effective for improving schools?

IStock_000056241760_SmallWhen a school needs to improve, school leaders can approach it one of two ways—tell your staff what to do and how to do it, or work together to figure out what to do and how to do it. Because the direction you take will shape the success of your improvement efforts, it’s crucial to choose the approach that’s best for your school’s needs and will help reach your long-term achievement goals.

Bryan Goodwin, McREL President and CEO, takes a look at the case for direction and the case for empowerment in his latest Research Says column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, “To Go Fast, Direct. To Go Far, Empower.” The choice, he finds, depends on whether your school needs quick results or to “break through performance ceilings.”

Studies on successful turnaround efforts, Goodwin writes, show that their leaders tend to have a “take-charge attitude” and have very clear expectations of staff, often establishing new instructional routines with off-the-shelf programs like America’s Choice, Success for All, etc. This directive approach works well when a school needs to execute teaching routines more effectively and implement curriculum more consistently.

However, research also shows that the resulting quick gains also tend to plateau, Goodwin notes, and many turnaround schools eventually begin to adapt their curriculum, working together to better align it with the needs of their students.

Read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International


Civil discourse on the Common Core

IStock_000017974549_SmallBeing an academic standards consultant was once a fairly anonymous, low-profile job. Relatively few people seemed to know or care about the importance of educational standards, and news stories about standards were rare. Just a year or two ago, when I talked with other parents at the neighborhood park about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they politely smiled and nodded, not really understanding what I meant.

But, as the CCSS slowly began to be implemented over the last couple of years, people who had never given a second thought to educational standards began to take notice and discuss what exactly it is that they thought our students should understand and be able to demonstrate. Now, everyone seems to have an opinion about the Common Core, and the discourse is often divisive and far from civil.

Recently, at an education policy meeting I attended at a university, a panel of education leaders was asked to provide their thoughts on the opposition to the CCSS and the related PARCC testing. On the panel were a representative from the state department of education, a CEO of several charter schools, a school district math coordinator, and a district chief academic officer. A member of the state board of education acted as moderator.

As a lead-in to the discussion, the audience and panel members were told that, invariably, in every meeting of the state board of education, people spoke passionately about their opposition to CCSS and PARCC. The question to the panel was: What causes that opposition? Is it true opposition to the CCSS and/or PARCC assessments, or is it merely a convenient speaking point for politicians and pundits?

The panelists and audience members brought up many points of conflict on the pros and cons of the standards and testing. Audience members were clearly frustrated with the feeling that parents have been left out of the conversation, because, in their view, policy makers and educators don’t believe parents are knowledgeable enough to participate in deep dialogue and debate about the issues. The conversation grew heated on all sides.

What is causing this divide? One of the panelists correctly pointed out that, when it comes to the standards and testing, many related-but-distinct issues have become conflated with one another, such as identifying the appropriate number of assessments; setting the right bar; teaching the right content; and who should control the setting of the bar and the measuring of results.

When we’re talking with one another about the CCSS or assessments, we need to be careful that we’re really talking about the same issues and not talking past each other in the heat of the moment. Without common definitions and understandings of what “it” is we’re debating, frustration levels on all sides will remain high.

Forging these common definitions will require every education advocate—federal, state, district, school, parent, community member—to take the time to listen to opponents’ perspectives, find points of agreement, and mutually identify the specific issues that are causing conflict and disagreement. That’s easier said than done, but if we can’t commit to civil discourse then neither side is going to get anything other than increasingly frustrated and disillusioned. And, without a joint effort to identify the issues causing opposition, we risk perpetuating the same negative cycle that will continue to shift as frequently as the political winds that drive it.


2008_SchwolsMcREL consultant Amitra Schwols is an expert in STEM curriculum who analyzes, evaluates, revises, and drafts new standards and benchmark documents related to K–12 classroom activities and resources. She is a co-author on McREL’s Common Core Standards Quick-Start Guides for grades K–5.


Our 10 (or 11) most popular blog posts of 2014

Educators face many challenges each day—large and small—that when addressed effectively have the ability to inspire better teaching, leading, and learning. Our staff continually ask themselves the same question you might ask yourself: As educators, how can we make a bigger, better difference in student engagement and knowledge? 

Our consultants (former teachers and leaders themselves), researchers, and evaluators address that question in our blog by combining professional experience with sound research to offer insight and practical ideas for building student resiliency, prioritizing improvement initiatives, increasing staff motivation, interpreting data, and cultivating a positive school climate.

Our top ten (actually 11 because of a tie for 2nd) most popular blog posts for 2014 address many of these concerns. In case you missed one or two, here’s the entire list (click on each title to view the post):

Number 10-1What's STEM got to do with it? 

by Whitney Cobb

Number 9 A "fresh eyes" perspective on school climate change

by Shelby Maier

Number 8 Supporting nontraditional education programs in traditional settings

         by Katie Andersen

Number 7 Filling the STEM teacher pipeline

by Matt Kuhn

Number 6  Some schools say no to homework: Is that a good idea?

 by Howard Pitler

Number 5  What does "You 2.0" look like in the classroom? 

  by Bryan Goodwin

Number 4  An AWSM way to increase middle schoolers' math  success

           by Kathleen Dempsey

Number 3  Is it struggle or is it effort? Maybe it's a cultural thing

  by Joshua Stewart

Number 2TIE  Student success is influenced by district leadership

  by Timothy Waters

Number 2 TIE The "innovator's mindset" 

  by Howard Pitler

Number 1  Jump-start school improvement with fewer, not more,  initiatives

            by Kay Frunzi

Posted by McREL International


Do school structures create obstacles for STEM learning?

Engineering groupSTEM is a hot education initiative these days, with numerous schools investing energy and resources to create more, and more robust, learning experiences for students in science, technology, engineering, and math, all with a goal of boosting student interest and readiness for post-secondary STEM education and careers.

Yet despite the investment and focus, research studies show that many of these efforts fall flat, producing few, if any, gains in student achievement and interest.

Why is this, and can STEM programs get better?

McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein recently dug into this question for a column in ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine. They found that how students are taught is an important factor for long-term interest, with successful STEM programs focusing on rich, hands-on research experiences and real-world applications. It also appears that out-of-school time programs, which are free from the constraints of our current accountability- and assessment-driven time in school, approach STEM more creatively and offer a way to rekindle student interest.  

You can read the full column on the ASCD Educational Leadership site.

Posted by McREL International.