If you are an educator you have most likely heard of STEM, an acronym which represents the integration of science, technology, engineering, and math in our educational practices. If your school’s leaders are paying attention to educational reform, your school may already have a STEM Lab or be contemplating the addition of a STEM Lab to your campus. As the Science Department Head at our school, I was interviewed for the very same today.

What is a STEM Lab? Why do we need it? How will it benefit our learning community? How will the space be used? These are all very important questions to be asked and explored in the development of any shared learning spaces, STEM or otherwise. I have to admit, these questions were hard for me to answer and the reasons are far more complicated than my own ignorance as to what STEM means or what it represents.

A little later in the day I had the pleasure of visiting Ms. Gracida’s classroom to observe her Anatomy 12 class in action. Be forewarned, I have included some pictures for reference, but they are of the dissection of the heads of three cattle. Ms. Gracida goes above and beyond in bringing this rich open-inquiry learning opportunity to the learners in her class. Obtaining the heads of cattle is not easy; it incurs extra time, expense, and paperwork, but Ms. Gracida does this because she knows it will empower her learners.

Ms. Gracida discusses cow facial muscles with her Anatomy 12 students.

As I walked around her laboratory classroom and took various disgusting pictures, I contemplated whether or not this dissection activity would be considered STEM. The anatomy of a cow head is most certainly science. The students were working with their laptops for reference materials; using their iPhones, and waterproof (blood proof?) video recorders to digitally document their work. They attached cow facial muscles to a potentiometer to attempt to cause a contraction (no luck so far). This is technology at the level of augmentation and beyond based on the SAMR Model. Nothing is being built during the cow dissection lab, but this same student group had to rebuild goat skeletons from scratch and design structures to support the goat skeletons, which I would call engineering. While math is not their area of focus for this lab, it would be so easy to add math to this activity. The goat rebuild did require the counting, and organizing of vertebrae and the accurate measurement of supporting structures. Math is a language of science, we need only to draw our own attention to what is already there.

The Anatomy 12 goat skeleton rebuild products overlook the cow head dissection activity.

STEM activities are important and relevant because they help our learners to acquire knowledge and skills that will support them in their future endeavors, academic or otherwise. If you can slice open the head of a cow in high school you are unlikely to balk the first time you prepare dinner for yourself; you will slice any food with confidence! If you understand how to methodically go about the deconstruction of a cow head, how easy will it be to disassemble all that Ikea furniture the first time you move? If you understand how facial muscles work, you will better understand the gravity of any injuries sustained and act accordingly; not every injury requires a race to the nearest hospital emergency room. The importance and relevance of activities in a STEM Lab are absolute because STEM activities have relevance to everyday life experiences. The benefits of such a space are self-evident.

Ms. Gracida’s laboratory classroom is not a STEM Lab, and though she teaches Chemistry 11, it is not (yet) equipped with a fume hood. The reality is, we already do STEM activities without a fully tricked out STEM Lab, but if this is what Ms. Gracida and her students are up to right now, imagine the possibilities if we actually had a modern STEM Lab! A STEM Lab might contain certain physical structures and tools, but it is my belief that STEM Education is a state of mind. This feeling is what made my STEM Lab interview so challenging. Shiny new learning spaces are wonderful, but even more essential are having brave, innovative teachers within them.

Thanks for the inspiration, Ms. Gracida!