Darren Brisbane, program manager at Sherpa Kids St Pauls, returns to share a story that began as an article about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in OSHC for Science Week this week, but it became something more – something quite special.
This is a reflection on the way one staff member’s passions can change a whole program for the good, how sometimes those passions are appreciated even more in hindsight, and how to maintain the strength in the program when the educator himself is no longer there.
It is also a brutally honest reflection on Darren’s own perceptions of STEM and the personal and professional barriers that he, like many in the sector, faced when looking to develop this side of his program.
That special something
Everything I know about STEM learning can be attributed to a novice educator my service took on a few years ago. Jordan was very green in all things OSHC, but his passion for science was admirable, and thus began my service’s foray into the wonderful world of STEM.
Jordan’s journey was to learn how to be more than a science “geek” – mine was to help him get there to really tap his educator potential. I needed to make the most of the skills and, even more importantly, the enthusiasm that he had to offer.
I decided to make use of his strength straight out of the gate, and set him up with our program planner and programming time. I asked him to develop a science program – one science-based activity per week for the duration of the term.
Many of these experiments were your classics – the Mentos lolly in the bottle of diet coke, for example. Other activities seemed to be overly complicated and required too much educator input for my liking, but science was Jordan’s thing so I left him to it.
Several experiments did not quite go to plan, but we didn’t take failure of the experiment to be failure of the educator (or the young scientists) – instead, we looked to why the experiment didn’t work.
Every experiment was run from a ‘how to’ sheet and with the children’s help we were able to figure out where we went wrong, and this created opportunities to try the same experiment again further down the track and achieve a different outcome.
Opportunities for risk
Some of these activities involved an element of perceived risk, such as use of fire.
This was a great opportunity to discuss safety with the children from a perspective that they might not be used to, and they lapped it up because the potential reward (a huge yellow flame) outweighed the risk of not being able to participate if they couldn’t follow the rules.
Video provided by Sherpa Kids St Pauls
An uncool superpower
From the perspective of a seasoned OSHC educator, developing a self-confessed ‘STEM geek’ educator broadened my horizons. Upon reflection I realise that Jordan had a superpower that none of my other educators had – the ability to connect and form bonds with the children who weren’t ‘cool.’
As he learned other tools of the educator trade, he quickly became a favourite for the children who normally might not be sporty, who started to go outside and kick a ball around.
Jordan interacted well with children that others on my team had been trying for years to ‘crack’. He did it naturally, with his enthusiasm for learning, and his desire to share that enthusiasm with the children he worked with on his own personal quest for self-development.
At the time I was on a quest to discover free or inexpensive professional development opportunities for my entire staff team, ranging across several areas: child protection, food safety, mental health, trauma and abuse, coaching, sun safety, and so much more.
When I reached the science professional development options I admit that I faltered.
The elephant in the room
What is it about STEM that makes it so intimidating? By our very nature, as educators, we deliver several of the concepts STEM seeks to provide in our day to day routines and programs.
We don’t even know that we’re doing it, and yet those four letters can cause even the most formidable and ‘out-there’ educators to grind to a halt.
For me, it is the sense that this acronym does not belong to the children’s education and care sector.
When reading about STEM, everything about it just sounds like it’s aimed at primary school teachers – robotics, programming, engineering, chemistry… to misquote a famous science-fiction character, ‘I’m an educator, not a rocket scientist!’
Not a rocket scientist
I am not formally qualified to teach anyone anything in line with the national curriculum in any classrooms. I feel very out of my depth when I sit down to plan any sort of science based program.
A change in mindset was definitely in order.
Jordan had demonstrated that someone whose only real asset was an enthusiasm for learning and a desire to spark it in others could shape the way children participated in our program.
He showed me that STEM is not even really about the activities you have planned.
Yes, everyone loves a Mentos explosion, or making slime, but the truth of it is the same as everything else we do in our roles as mentors and educators. STEM is about what the children take away from the experience.
Start with what (or who) you know
If yours is an educator team trying to figure out what STEM is meant to look like in your service, my best advice is to kick it off with something you know and see where it goes. The children will surprise you with knowledge they already have.
Jordan has since moved on as he continues his studies to become a primary teacher. Our loss is their gain. But his legacy remains in my service to this day – the concepts of STEM are engrained in every level of our program and the children constantly wow us with their knowledge and observations.
You’re not expected to know it all, after all, that’s why we experiment, observe, measure, and build!
National Science Week is this week (11-19 August) give it your best!