By Simon Bruce-Lockhart, Interim Head of School

Several years ago, St. Margaret’s branded itself as a STEM school. To some extent, I wish we hadn’t done that. Why? Not because I in any way disbelieve in the profound validity of what we are striving to accomplish – I endorse it heartily. Rather, my concern is that we create a false impression. When people hear the acronym STEM and discover it stands for SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING and MATH, they naturally make the assumption that the school emphasizes those subjects.  Add to that the popular understanding that women traditionally avoid going into those fields and one arrives at an even stronger conviction that St. Margaret’s, in its dedication to educating confident young women, is attempting to reverse that trend by focusing on STEM subjects. We are trying to reverse the trend, but in a significantly different way.

During my over 40 years in secondary schools, I have never encountered a school that teaches Engineering.  Subjects that lead to engineering – yes, but Engineering itself? Not in my experience.  So clearly, STEM cannot be taken literally in the high school context.

STEM, at least in the way St. Margaret’s uses the term, does not refer to specific subjects.  Rather, it refers to the methodologies that are common in the approach to those subjects: observation, inquiry, prediction, and experimentation. It is a process that begins with asking a question, creating a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, examining the results and adapting as necessary – and repeating that process until a solution is achieved.

STEM, then, puts a premium on thinking: critical, creative and design thinking, terms I was completely unaware of when I was in high school! It sees learning as a process of wonder, curiosity, collaboration, making “mistakes” and growing from them – and the joy of discovery.  The key to STEM is the child and her journey, not the teacher.  In fact, “teachers” do not teach so much as they guide, collaborate and travel alongside on the voyage.

STEM is easy to understand when you are talking about Science, but what does it look like in the context of an English or French classroom? Let me give you some examples of STEM in action across the academic life of the school.

The STEM approach in the Junior Kindergarten (JK) classrooms at SMS is actually being studied as an exemplar by two university professors – one from the University of Victoria and the other from the University of Ottawa.  Among a number of other topics such as physical literacy, culinary arts and environmental study, a current area of inquiry is examining the role of plants in our lives. The JK educators are currently working with our wonderful gardener, Frances Dowling, exploring what a plant is and how we use them.  How does it grow from a seed? What does it need in order to do that in terms of nutrition and environment? What are the parts of a plant (which they then create in foam models)? Then they plant the seeds and pursue ongoing observation of what happens.

The K – 4 classes each year have a collaborative project called Explorations.  This year, the project was the creation and performance of a musical. Rather than presenting a fait accompli to the students, the K – 4s were involved from the outset in creating the idea, writing the script, designing the set, understanding the need for lighting and backstage work, creating the costumes, rehearsing and performing – and then reflecting on the end product after the fact. That is a much more dynamic, collaborative and creative process than the normal call for interested parties to take pre-ordained roles and – as a veteran of many elementary school plays – I can assure you the result was certainly superior.

In Grade 6, in Art/ADST, students work with a client (an SMS teacher) to create the client’s dream home.  They consult, understand, ideate and then sketch a draft blueprint on “Sketch Up.”  That draft is tweaked as necessary in consultation with the client and the instructor, and then they create a physical model.  I for one am looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labours.

In Grade 10 Leadership, the theme was “Connecting with our Community.”  The students selected their particular area of interest as homelessness in Victoria.  To begin with, they researched the facts seeking to understand the issues from the point of view of the homeless themselves (Step one, “empathy”, in the Design Thinking Protocol.) Then they toured Our Place to move their thinking closer to the people they were seeking to understand and help. Their fundamental questions were: what needs do they have that are not currently being met? That we can realistically meet?

The result was a blanket drive in the school that resulted in the donation of a number of blankets.  The other important results were that the students a) took the time to learn from the people they were reaching out to help; and b) avoided the “saviour mentality.”

And, lastly, the Trashion Show was a wonderful example of STEM thinking in action.  It started with a concept – making fashionable garments out of recycled and upcycled materials. It moved to an exploration of how to accomplish that concept effectively; a great deal of experimentation with materials, design and construction; arranging for and creating a public display (at the Bay Centre); and culminated in a triumphant lead off to the hugely successful STEM Conference.

Our attachment to STEM is strong.  It is not an emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as discreet subjects, but it is a commitment to the inquiry, experimentation and design thinking that are involved in those subjects and applying them to real life issues.

I had the pleasure of having lunch recently with an alumna who is an eminent professor emerita of UBC.  In the course of our conversation, I asked her what, if she were Head of St. Margaret’s, she would emphasize.  She promptly replied “STEM.” When I explained that that did not mean we emphasized the named subjects, she replied that she understood that.  Nonetheless, she continued, what we were doing was critical: we were normalizing the approach to those subjects for girls, and giving them permission to follow those subjects in university without apology.

I agree.  This is a never-ending journey, but we are enthusiastically on it and are making great strides forward.