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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

Integrating S, T, E, and M

The STEM subjects are too often taught in isolation from one another—and from the world of work. The Linked Learning approach is changing that.

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The need to integrate all four elements of STEM takes on urgency with the advent of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Whereas the Common Core standards promote much greater attention to technical reading and writing and emphasize mathematical modeling, the science standards explicitly call for more focus on engineering and design and for better integration of engineering with mathematics, science, and technology.
For a nation deeply concerned about remaining globally competitive—and raising the scientific, technological, and quantitative literacy of its population—these initiatives are indeed good news. However, realizing the promise of the Common Core standards and NGSS won't be easy. Despite more than a decade of strong advocacy by practitioners, employers, and policymakers, STEM education in U.S. schools leaves a great deal to be desired.
In too many schools, science and math are still taught mostly in isolation from each other, and engineering is absent. To be sure, in a growing number of high schools and even some middle schools, a pre-engineering curriculum is becoming more common. But more often than not, these engineering courses are offered as electives without strong connections to core courses like physics, algebra, geometry, and calculus.
Even where STEM offerings are taking root in a more coherent and integrated fashion, these courses or cross-disciplinary projects are rarely linked to the rest of the core curriculum. Schools aren't connecting STEM to English, social studies, world languages, or the visual and performing arts. To achieve the cross-disciplinary vision of the Common Core standards and the deeper learning sought through NGSS, schools need a better strategy—one that nurtures both students' and teachers' understanding of how STEM knowledge connects to other fields of knowledge. Such a strategy would accelerate progress in making high-quality STEM education an integral part of U.S. education.
One promising approach that's growing rapidly in California and in cities like Detroit, Michigan; Houston, Texas; and Rochester, New York, is Linked Learning: Pathways to College and Career. This approach transforms students' STEM learning by integrating rigorous academics with career-based learning and workplace experiences. It prepares young people for both college and career, not just one or the other. And it ignites students' passions by giving them meaningful learning experiences organized into career-oriented pathways in fields like engineering, health care, digital media, agriculture, the arts, and law.

What Is Linked Learning?

Students in Linked Learning programs enroll in a career-themed pathway and take a four-year (or longer) program of study focused on content and skills connected to that career. A well-designed pathway is more than a sequence of relevant career and technical courses. It also includes the full complement of core academic courses, work-based learning opportunities, and support services.
Linked Learning is an old idea getting a new execution. A century ago John Dewey advocated learning through occupations. Theme-based high schools (like Aviation High School in New York City), career academies, and industry-themed small learning communities have been part of the U.S. education landscape for some time. But more often than not, these opportunities existed in spite of the system rather than because of it. They were products of a few innovative teachers or a visionary principal. Often when their founders left their school, their innovations disappeared as well. In addition, the quality of design and implementation found in programs using a career pathways approach has been uneven at best. Frequently, "academies" or "pathways" are little more than names superimposed on traditional curriculum and teaching methods.
Linked Learning has two primary elements that distinguish it from seemingly similar approaches. First, Linked Learning is specific about what constitutes high-quality pathway design and implementation. A formal process of Linked Learning Pathway certification validates the quality of its programs and promotes continual improvement.
Although there are different ways to deliver Linked Learning, every Linked Learning pathway must offer students a comprehensive, multiyear program of study consisting of four components: (1) academic core courses in English, social studies, science, mathematics, world language, and art that emphasize real-world application in the industry that is the pathway's theme; (2) a cluster of three or more technical courses that deliver challenging technical knowledge and skill (and, where appropriate, enable students to obtain a formal industry certification); (3) work-based learning that gives students a chance to interact and solve real-world problems with working adults; and (4) personalized student supports that include college and career counseling and supplemental instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics.
Supporting this basic framework is a set of Linked Learning quality criteria that teachers and school leaders use to strengthen their pathways and prepare for formal certification. When a pathway team believes it's ready for certification review, a team of trained reviewers uses a rubric to evaluate that pathway.
Validating pathway quality is necessary but not sufficient to ensure that these kinds of opportunities are available to ever larger numbers of students and that Linked Learning programs don't become islands of excellence serving small numbers of kids. The second distinguishing feature of Linked Learning, therefore, is a commitment to implement the approach systematically throughout the school district and community surrounding a school that adopts Linked Learning. Districts must engage a wide range of stakeholders to create and sustain a menu of high-quality Linked Learning pathways that are accessible to any student who wants this educational opportunity.
It's worth emphasizing that adopting a districtwide system of pathways doesn't necessarily mean every school in the district must offer pathways. Nor does it mean that pathways displace all other instructional approaches. It does mean, however, that the district is committed to making pathways accessible to any student who wants this experience and that Linked Learning is an integral—and sustainable—approach within the district.
Schools that aren't ready to create formal Linked Learning pathways can benefit from adopting some of the approach's features, particularly rich, standards-based multidisciplinary projects that stress real-world application and let students engage with working adults around authentic problems. Similarly, opportunities to participate in internships with employers engaged in STEM-intensive work can help motivate students and deepen their understanding of why STEM matters and how it's used outside the classroom.
However, schools taking this less comprehensive approach should use caution. It's easy to fall into the trap of creating projects simply because they're more engaging for students (and teachers!) without paying careful attention to the standards and other learning objectives that projects should be designed to advance. Similarly, work-based learning experiences are most effective when, by design, they intentionally and immediately reinforce knowledge and skills that are part of students' classroom experience. Isolated internships, while not without value, don't have the integrative power of high-quality Linked Learning.

How Does This Approach Advance STEM?

Although it doesn't exclusively promote STEM learning, Linked Learning offers pathways in many STEM-related fields, including architecture, construction, and engineering; agriculture and natural resources; biomedical and health sciences; advanced manufacturing; digital media arts; health professions; and information technology. Because every Linked Learning pathway must incorporate all core academic subjects and connect them to real-world applications, even pathways in less STEM-dominated fields—such as law or hospitality—provide opportunities to enhance students' STEM learning.
For example, in a high school offering Linked Learning pathways in both information technology and law and justice, courses in the law and justice pathway might emphasize the growing complexities surrounding the protection of intellectual property in technology fields, such as patents on software designs or coding sequences—issues crucial to the advancement of STEM in the United States.
Such infusion of STEM throughout the curriculum happens at the School of Engineering and Sciences (SES) in Sacramento Unified School District in California, which offers a Linked Learning pathway on engineering and design for its 7th through 12th graders. The school's mantra is "Build, innovate, and design!" Starting in 7th grade, students must take engineering and design-related courses every year, along with core academic courses and requisite math and science courses that use multidisciplinary project-based learning. For high school students, the course sequence includes early college opportunities in collaboration with Sacramento City College and Sacramento State University.
The school also scaffolds an increasingly rich series of work-based learning opportunities connected to STEM fields. These experiences start with mentoring and job shadowing and evolve into internships and project-based learning opportunities that have local employers guiding and evaluating student work.
The School of Engineering and Sciences is one of several Linked Learning pathways available to students throughout the Sacramento district. Students less attracted to engineering might attend Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School (HPHS), which organizes teaching and learning around careers in health care. Courses are as STEM-oriented as those at the School of Engineering and Sciences, but they focus more on community health, disease, biophotonics, and epidemiology. Once a week, both students and teachers wear scrubs as a reminder of their commitment to organize teaching and learning around the health professions.
Many other California districts use Linked Learning to offer students a rich menu of STEM-related pathways. For instance, Long Beach Unified has adopted a resolution that by 2016, 90 percent of its high school students will be enrolled in certified Linked Learning pathways that include architecture, construction, and engineering; media and communications; GREEN (Generating Respect for Earth, the Environment, and Nature); and QUEST (Questioning, Understanding, and Engaging Success through Technology). In Antioch Unified School District, students at two of the comprehensive high schools can follow pathways in Engineering and Designing a Green Environment; Environmental Studies; Leadership and Public Service; Media Technology; Law and Justice; or Biotechnology—or they can attend the theme-based Dozier-Libbey Medical High School.
In Michigan, Detroit now has eight Linked Learning high schools, offering pathways in engineering, health professions, and information technology, to name a few. In Texas, Houston Independent School District is on track to deliver Linked Learning in all its high schools.

Linked Learning and the Standards

Linked Learning and the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards are not competing initiatives. On the contrary, if the Common Core and the science standards represent what students need to know and be able to do, Linked Learning provides a strategy for teaching this essential knowledge and skills.
Linked Learning not only strengthens STEM instruction in traditional science and mathematics courses, but also provides a framework and rationale for developing more comprehensive programs of study. These programs not only include cutting-edge STEM-focused courses (such as in information technology or biomedicine and health), but also encourage incorporation of STEM content into core academic subjects. Schools will need such course strengthening and integration of STEM instruction to help all students master these demanding standards.
Here's an example from the Digital Media Arts Pathway at Hollywood High in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Three years ago, all seniors in this pathway were charged with creating and producing a short video trailer that they would use to pitch a full-length documentary to Hollywood studio executives. They worked on the project in teams throughout their senior year.
One group of students made a trailer for a documentary on the history of racial discrimination in Los Angeles public schools. To inform their work, they read writings by James Baldwin for their English class and studied Brown v. Board of Education and other court cases in social studies class—but they also drew on STEM-related knowledge to improve their product. In physics, they studied the properties of light and optics and how they affect exposure, depth of field, white balance, and other aspects of producing images with still and video cameras. In their videography class, they learned about design, lighting, sound, and using digital technologies for editing. Perhaps most important, they learned that iterative revision leads to an increasingly polished product.
Eventually, the group pitched its three-minute trailer to the vice president of MTV. When I asked them what was the most important thing this executive told them about their trailer, they all replied, "Spelling matters!" Their teacher noted that she tells the students this all the time, but it didn't sink in until they heard it from an industry professional.
This example highlights another way approaches like Linked Learning make it more likely students will master STEM skills. By connecting STEM-related course content to experiences found in the work world, the approach gives teachers an answer to students' frequent—and fair—question, "Why do we need to know this?"

Part of the Fabric

If schools continue to teach STEM content in isolation from the rest of core academic and technical curriculum—and fail to link that content to the work done in STEM-related occupations—we'll continue to marginalize STEM. Conceptually and practically, STEM is part of the rich fabric of curriculum, teaching, and everyday life. We need an approach to schooling that communicates that fact—and celebrates it.
<ATTRIB> Author's note: Schools and districts interested in formally adopting the Linked Learning approach should contact Brad Stam at ConnectEd. Many of the resources needed to plan and implement a menu of pathways are available free on ConnectEd's website or through ConnectEd Studios, an online platform supporting Linked Learning. </ATTRIB>

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