Fall Science Conference encourages support of STEM in classrooms


Courtesy / Kathy Agee

James Kilborn

On Wednesday, Nov. 17,  teachers and other educators from across Michigan gathered for the 34th Annual Fall Science Update Conference. Organized by Grand Valley State University’s Regional Math and Science Center, the event focused on encouraging students to pursue STEM-fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in hopes that today’s students can become tomorrow’s problem solvers. 

Science Program Coordinator for the Regional Math and Science Center Kathy Agee said she saw the event and its keynote speakers as encouragement for teachers, allowing them to network with other educators while giving them new tools and techniques they can apply within the classroom. Agee spoke of the importance teachers have in spurring their students’ interest in the sciences, encouraging them to develop questions and solutions while giving them a solid understanding of the world around them. 

“Most scientists can point back to a teacher or science experience that sparked their interest to pursue a career in it,” Agee said. “It is also important to expose students to scientific professionals; whether it is in the form of watching a video, having a scientist come to the classroom to share their experience or having the students attend a STEM-fields camp, like ‘Energizing our World’ alternative energy sources camp, or ‘sHaPe’ (Summer Health Activities and Professions Exploration) camp, both offered by the Regional Math and Science Center in the summer.”

Both keynote speakers, Terra Terango of the Van Andel Education Institute and Patrik Brundin of the Van Andel Institute, emphasized the importance of a healthy classroom environment where teachers can help students “find the spark” that pushes them toward a lifetime of critical thinking and finding solutions to problems they’re passionate about. 

Agee noted that these pushes in primary education coincide with fundamental changes occurring within the state’s economy. As manufacturing positions continue to be either outsourced or automated, a workforce that emphasizes communication skills along with technical prowess is needed for the jobs of the future. Fostering an interest in science and technology-related fields will ultimately result in students that are well-adapted to enter the workforce, making the state more competitive in recruiting and retaining top technology-based businesses.  

“We have traditionally seen students do math and science, but not really understand them,” Agee said. “We are no longer preparing students to go into factory jobs where they just need to follow instructions. We need a workforce that is innovative, and in order to do this, they need to be given opportunities in the classroom where they are given a real world problem to solve.”

Director of the Regional Math and Science Center Kris Pachla emphasized the importance of developing a strong foundation of math and science-related skills, stating that without these building blocks, students often lose interest and fail to acquire skills necessary for STEM-related fields. 

“We know that students connect to STEM when they know someone like them has gone into that field before, and now we’re finding out more about how that impacts students, and when shifts out of STEM happen,” Pachla said. “More and more, research is showing that as early as elementary school, students are losing interest in STEM because of a lack of access, lack of excitement and lack of exposure.”

Both Pachla and Agee view the classroom environment as a key component in scientific learning, as teachers encourage students through a variety of hands-on activities and group projects. 

“In today’s successful science classroom, you will hear the noise of productive conversations, where students are questioning problems provided by their teacher, working as a team to solve a challenge, and questioning each other’s ideas to develop their own deeper understanding,” Agee said. “You will see them not only doing hands-on activities but also “minds on”, where they work to help each other find answers that they cannot copy from a textbook.”

Educators who attended the event will take a variety of new concepts and tools to foster scientific learning and apply them within their classrooms. As today’s world continues to change faster than ever before, event coordinators believe that students must acquire the technical and interpersonal skills necessary to solve both present and future problems. 

The Fall Science Update Conference worked to enable teachers to connect with students in new ways, engaging them with real-world problems while encouraging them to pursue their passions. These changes in curriculum aim to educate the next group of scientists, researchers and citizens who have a desire to improve their environments.