Teacher Yanina Jimenez’ Downers Grove class is one of six STEM cohorts in the Lake Union. Photo credit: Jeff Boyd
The Grades 1‒4 classroom door is locked when the children arrive at Downers Grove Adventist School. Although this is not an everyday occurrence, the students immediately know what this clue means. The cheering comes first, then the chattering and whispering begin as the students wait for Ms. Jimenez to open the door. They remember last time—that day when Ms. Amaro and Ms. Jimenez turned the entire classroom into a dig site—when every subject throughout the school day connected to the discovery of fossils in a fun, but challenging way.
Where will they be going today? To the lake? To the arctic? To a bakery? Who will they be? Poets? Paleontologists? Professional fishermen? What will they be wearing? Naturalist hats? Aprons? Scrubs and surgical masks?
The anticipation builds as the door opens and Ms. Jimenez invites them in, a NASA logo on her hat and sweatshirt, and an astronaut doll in her arms. Eyes sparkle. Feet tap in anticipation. Another STEAM Transformation Day has begun!
Photo Credit: Jeff Boyd
Yanina Jimenez is one of six teachers from the Lake Union Conference currently taking part in the recently-formed North American Division (NAD) STEM Cohorts—and one of countless other educators across the nation who are striving to introduce their students to the wonder, the exploration, the critical thinking skills, and the discovery to be encountered within the burgeoning fields of science, technology, engineering, (art), and math [STE(A)M].
Considering current projections that STEM jobs will have increased by 8.8 percent between 2017 and 2029, that software development employment in particular will have expanded by 22 percent within this same timeframe, and that the median annual wage of STEM occupations is currently twice that of non-STEM occupations (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), this attention is certainly warranted.
As our world recognizes the expanding need for STEM education in order to fill future occupational voids within the fields of STEM, Adventist educators—with the additional goal of leading students on a “journey of excellence” through a lifetime of obedience to God’s call— recognize an even greater need for this type of training. When coupled with a firm grounding in Scripture, STEM education will equip Adventist students, whether within the Lake Union or anywhere else in the world, to share the Three Angels’ Messages in their future workplaces so spiritual nourishment can travel through STEM to bear fruit for eternity.
STEM, the NAD, and the Lake Union Conference
Since 2016, the Versacare Foundation has generously supported hundreds of schools across the NAD in the purchase of STEM equipment such as Chromebooks, iPads, 3D printers, and computer labs, thus enabling both teachers and students within the Lake Union Conference to expand their experience with STEM education. In 2021, however, with the desire to go beyond providing physical STEM apparatus, the NAD, in partnership with Loma Linda University, designated a $350,000 Versacare grant toward STEM training for teachers. This gift has truly empowered Lake Union educators to utilize the STEM equipment they already have in a more intentional, STEM-directed way. Amongst numerous STEM training opportunities that are currently being provided by the NAD, several of these grant-funded STEM initiatives have been of particular value within the Lake Union Conference recently—namely, STEM Cohorts and STEM Summer Workshops.
Photo Credit: Christa McConnell
The dream behind the NAD STEM Cohorts is extensive. From September 2021 through May 2022, cohorts of up to 10 teachers—from different conferences, different experience levels, different demographics, but similar grade ranges—are coached by a STEM expert through the process of learning a STEM lesson, teaching that lesson to the students at their local school, and then creating their own lesson plan. The end goal is the creation of over 100 STEM standards-based lesson plans that will be accessible to all Adventist educators.
Within the Lake Union Conference, participation in these cohorts has been inspiring teachers like Yanina Jimenez to engage students in interdisciplinary approaches to the standards, units and lessons that form the basis of Adventist curriculum. Similarly, Kendra Knudson of Cicero Adventist Elementary shares that her involvement in the cohorts has enabled her to recognize that “STEM opportunities can be pulled from any subject. It’s just about looking at the subject matter and asking yourself, ‘What STEM activity can I use to help my students truly connect what they’re learning?’”
STEM Summer Workshops
An additional six teachers across the Lake Union Conference were privileged to participate in STEM workshops at Andrews University in July 2021, choosing between intriguing titles like “Engineering-VEX Robotics” and “Chemistry Principles from Food.” Over the course of several intensely packed days, attendees engaged in activities such as building, wiring, coding and activating robots, or participating in experiments revolving around gummy worms and osmosis, the dissolving of M&Ms, and the involvement of sodium alginate for the creation of boba tea.
These workshops have provided participants like Arthur Miller, teacher of science at Indiana Academy, not only with an equipment kit for use in his classroom, but also with an arsenal of engaging STEM labs for his students—engaging because, “working with food is always of very high interest.” Miller’s students already have enjoyed one of these labs involving Jell-O and pineapple and have watched the power of enzymes at work.
STEM and the Senses
What does STEM education look like, sound like, and feel like throughout the schools of the Lake Union?
In Renee Truax’s Grades K‒8 classroom at Hastings Elementary School, STEM might look like students building clay models of vertebrates and invertebrates, placing heavy objects on the models, and noticing the difference that a backbone makes in the organism’s ability to cope with pressure. STEM also might sound like second-graders using well-chosen vocabulary words such as “cephalopods” and “crustaceans” that day—and the next, and the next day after that, too, because they have had a meaningful experience with these terms.
At Cicero Adventist Elementary, in Knudson’s Grades 5‒8 classroom, STEM might look like the creation of a secret quilt code that could have been used to convey messages to fellow conductors and passengers of the Underground Railroad. STEM education might sound like the hum and chatter of sewing machines and the murmur of young voices discussing the intricacies of the quilt block pattern and hoping they can convince Ms. Knudson to let them learn another one tomorrow.
STEM with Randy Lonto’s Engineering and Building class at Ruth Murdoch Elementary School might look like students converting guitars, hockey sticks, shoes, bowling pins, stacks of books and seashells into light-giving devices. It might look like the shining glimmer in the student’s eyes who has “gotten it.” STEM might feel like the sudden warmth of the bulb when the light turns on for the first time, or like the immediate sense of pride within the student who has wired it.
In every classroom, STEM looks like hands out of pockets, hands raised, hands-on learning, and hands actively engaged in creation. STEM sounds like teachers and students using terminology such as “ask,” “imagine,” “plan,” “create,” “test,” “improve,” and “share” as part of their engineering processes. STEM looks like bursts of creativity, extensive collaboration, excellent communication, and vast amounts critical thinking during project time.
Increasingly, STEM education travels beyond the walls of classrooms, too—into houses, onto playgrounds, into workplaces, onto jobsites. In Lonto’s words, “It is gratifying to hear that the knowledge the students learn is being put into action in the homes of their families.”
STEM, Spiritually Speaking
Another exciting component of STEM education throughout the Lake Union Conference is the God-centered focus that has been fostering both the connections constructed by the teachers themselves, and student-generated spiritual epiphanies.
Truax remembers distinctly the day one of her students looked up from a project involving exoskeletons and declared, “It’s like Jesus being our shell and protecting us!” These are exactly the kinds of associations she nurtures her students toward making on their own—encouraging children to recognize the relationships between their STEM lessons and biblical truths.
Knudson recalls how her fifth- through eighth-graders, while participating in a STEM lesson about natural hazards, realized that God has used disasters like drought, the Flood, pestilence and earthquakes throughout Scripture to caution earth’s inhabitants about coming judgments. Throughout biblical history, these warnings have enabled God’s remnant people to cling to Him for safety and, as a result, experience God’s preserving power. Students furthermore recognized that, by paying attention to the natural hazards in their own lives and remaining true to God through them, they could learn to more completely trust God’s faithfulness.
Lonto’s theme verse is Micah 6:8, a verse that he emphasizes in each of his classes but especially so during STEM activities. He explains that “to walk humbly with your God is to serve God in the best way possible—in one’s own unique and special way.” Lonto further reminds his students that every skill they learn as part of STEM education can be how they are better able to share the love of Christ with those around them.
To be sure, STEM education within the Lake Union Conference is about the wonder, the exploration and the critical thinking skills. It is about preparing the next generation to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding STEM workforce. But it is also about fulfilling the Great Commission.
As the students of Downers Grove Adventist School leave for home at the end of their Outer Space STEAM Transformation Day, they are still chattering excitedly. More importantly, however, they are in awe of their Creator and His universe, and their minds have been opened to the dream of a future in STEM—not, perhaps, because of the higher-than-average salary, but because their thoughts have been broadened to comprehend the lifetime of learning, discovery and service that lies before them.
Emily Gibbs teaches English and religion at Great Lakes Adventist Academy.