How STEM Changes the Way Students Think About the Future and Themselves

By Derrick Shiroma, Robotics teacher at Kalākaua Middle School

Validation came when my 8th-grade student realized that carrying cement didn’t have to be his future.  Two years ago, he was a 7th grader who struggled with his performance in his classes and consistently had low grades and equally low esteem.  He had the mentality of just getting through school to graduate and then begin the rest of his life working in construction as a laborer.

The shift happened when he decided to take my elective robotics class.  He was persistent in the tasks that were given and soon realized that he can do the work, and he can do it well.  When he chose to take my class again for his 8th-grade year, he had a chance to do the more advanced work.  He started to see that, while he was one of the lower kids in his other classes, he was excelling in my class.   

Top of the Class

For the first time, he was one of the top students in a class, and when he felt that and believed that, he began to get better grades in his other classes.  His high esteem as a student began to trickle into the other subjects.  Now he is in high school and is thinking of becoming an engineer, all because his attitude towards what he could do changed.  All because of a robotics elective class.  His change validated our decision to have computer science classes available for all of our students.

STEM education changes the way students think about the future and themselves.  While I just brought up one specific instance of the transformation STEM can have on a young student, I am filled up daily with many, many more.  I’ve only taught STEM classes for a few years and this story is more common for my students that normally wouldn’t have been offered a chance at taking a robotics class in a traditional setting.

A Chance to Thrive

I am an elective teacher at Kalākaua Middle School in Honolulu, Hawaii.  I teach six classes to mostly 7th and 8th-grade students – four are robotics and two two pre-engineering design-type architecture classes.  A few years back we were struggling to find another elective class that would really support our students.  Because of my background with Lego’s Robotic League, I threw out the idea that I could be a robotics teacher, and luckily my Principal agreed!

After working with the local high school, we looked at what was needed in an early STEM education class to best prepare students for the high school workload.  And by students, I mean ALL students, not just the ones that are in honors classes.  STEM can reach all students at all levels, and especially those that don’t normally thrive in their classes, so we had to do our part by making sure all of our students knew the class existed and had an opportunity to attend if they wanted.

I didn’t really imagine the impact that this STEM pipeline would have on Kalākaua Middle.  Now in our fourth year, our focus will be on convincing our Elementary schools to offer coding classes to all students as well, and not just students that have consistently higher scores in all of their classes.  It’s important for this push to happen so educators will be able to reach even more students, so when the students come to us in middle school, we can continue to push them even further in their problem solving and critical thinking skills.

“Only Smart Kids do Robotics”

To be honest, it was a struggle the first years to get students interested in taking the classes.  Students were coming in with the attitude that only the ‘smart’ kids get to do robotics.  I think some of our students have had that belief since Elementary school – kids that are ‘smarter’ get to be involved in more fun and interesting opportunities than those that struggle.  I had to spend a lot of time teaching students that everyone can do coding and have fun with STEM.  

It’s important for me to let my students know that everyone comes into STEM at all different levels, but we all can move forward at our own pace, and continue to advance our skills.  But the second year, it was crazy because my class was packed!  Students wanted to sign up and try different things.  I got a full range of students – from those that have been in robotics, those that are in honors classes, and those that signed up because they wanted to try and have fun.

CoderZ was brought on when we went to distance learning during the pandemic.  It was a last-minute decision as I was scrambling to find a virtual robotics program, but I’m so glad that we found it.  CoderZ opened up new opportunities and new ways of thinking, the most beneficial of which was the ease of teaching coding online.  Even though we are all coming back in person, I am going to keep using CoderZ as the main program for my students.

The Human Element

CoderZ is nice because each student can work at their own pace.  Even though I saw engagement while we were distance learning, I did see a bigger difference between student growth once we were back in person using the program.  We were able to have better conversations when we are in person versus at home.  When students were at home, they didn’t really want to reach out and ask questions when they ran into an issue or became stuck.  

When we are in person, when I can see students sitting at their computers, we had much better conversations about what they were thinking and how they completed a certain task.  I even noticed that when we are in person, instead of students giving up or just saying ‘I’m stuck,  they actually pinpoint where they are stuck and are able to ask more specific questions to help themselves continue with the task.

My students aren’t all on the same coding skill level, but that doesn’t make a difference in how much they learn in class.  I differentiate between student skill levels by setting up tasks in CoderZ where students can choose their own level of difficulty.  Students that feel more confident and advanced can challenge themselves with more complex tasks while the students that are just beginning to use the newly learned concepts could start earlier in some of those tasks.  

Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

I actually had a bunch of students take my class again, so the next year they were able to choose and complete some of the more complex tasks.  Even though it appears to be the same class that they took last year, when they come in they can choose more different tasks at a higher skill level to continue their growth.  Students are developing so many problem-solving and critical thinking skills with this curriculum.  

Students are gaining grit instead of giving up.  Instead of quitting the first time something isn’t working for them, they are trying five, six, even seven or more times before they ask the teacher for guidance.  Students are persevering through the tasks and when they do ask a question, they are more pointed and definitive on what exactly they would like help with.

Across the board, students’ confidence in robotics has definitely changed, and it has also impacted their grades and performance in other classes.  So many of my students have shown a big difference in their whole attitude towards school from the beginning of the year to the end.  Students’ mindsets are shifting as they work through my STEM class.  I can’t take credit for all of it, but as students are learning that they can learn and are good at learning, they want to learn even more.

Achieving my Goals

My goal has always been to try to show students that STEM is an option, and even though it is not something that is well known in my district, it is a valid profession that students can do and have fun while they do it.  I want to give every student on campus the experience and opportunity, and I want to take my enthusiasm for STEM and share it with other educators so they feel capable too.  If you are thinking about bringing STEM and robotics classes into your school, do it!  It will be one of the best decisions you could make for your students!