post16A typical middle school day includes six periods of five mandatory subjects and one elective. Students move every hour from classroom to classroom and study the subjects in isolation with one teacher and one subject. The National Middle School Association recommends an integrated curriculum that would provide stimulating experiences and opportunities for a less fragmented learning. The National Science Board (NSB) suggests that to build classes for best STEM learning they need to be integrated, engaging, and not taught in isolation. Some researchers want educators to consider holistic approaches linking the subjects so learning can become focused, meaningful and significant to students. It can best be described as interdisciplinary education that seeks to combine science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

WAIT! Where are the arts? While integrated curriculum is not a new idea integrated STEM curriculum is a novel idea and there is a need for further research to improve and see the impact of integration especially if we offer a STEAM curriculum. However, a clear understanding of how to integrate STEAM curriculum continues to be difficult to implement and research shows that in some states, current reform in STEAM includes the integration of engineering and five states have changed their state standards. The national science standards are being evaluated to include engineering which means integration is even more important as a STEAM model for the United States. Effective STEM education is vital for the success of students and for career development, global economic growth and national security. The integration of STEAM has the potential to merge meaningful curriculum and concepts to enhance student learning–however, it warrants continuous development and research.

A strong mathematics base is essential for students to be college and career ready when they finish high school and, according to EdSource (2011), the pivotal point is the seventh grade when the California Standards Test (CST) provides a benchmark for student readiness. In 1997, California’s academic content standards for 7th grade math were outlined with stepping-stones to Algebra 1. Minimally, all high school students must successfully pass Algebra 1 to receive a high school diploma. Algebra 1 functions as the gateway for advanced learning, making 7th grade an important pivot point for all students. Research has shown that “students that struggle the most in 7th grade often continue to struggle with math” through high school. In order to narrow the gaps in mathematics, concentration prior to middle school and particularly in 7th grade math, should be the focus of schools.

Thirty years ago, there were 13 boys to every girl who scored above a 700 on the SAT math exam; today that ratio has shrunk to three boys to every girl. This increase can suggest that the right education can and does make a difference for girls; although the gender differences are not completely understood. Since math skills are considered necessary for STEM literacy, access to advanced math classes are critical and middle school 7th grade should be the focus of research. Why do some students struggle in math and others breeze through? I am convinced it is the way we teach them in a classroom. A very famous quote by Ignacio Estrada said, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn”. Estrada it the nail on the head, we teach to the white, middle class male and hope that everyone else learns the same way. We are discovering the many, many learning styles of our students today, and although some of them may be similar, most are not the same. Using the “once size fits all method” of teaching may have worked 50 years ago, but not today in the 21st century. The United States is a melting pot of students and we need to adapt the curriculum to fit the students’ needs.

STEAM is the answer.

Deborah Gustlin


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