Creating a STEM Program in International School: Lessons On the Decision-Making Process at the InterAmerican Academy, Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Arturo Ramirez, PhD Candidate Education Policy, New School Univ. Secondary School Principal InterAmerican Academy Guayaquil, Ecuador
How do you create a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program at the international education level? Quite different from national educational policy implementation, which is often conveyed from the top down, educational initiatives at the international level are more successful when they take root from the bottom up. The present article is a short narrative on how the InterAmerican Academy in Guayaquil, Ecuador, began its efforts in the creation of a STEM initiative at the K-12 level that engages all stakeholders with one main objective: improving the science-driven educational offering and practices for all of its youngsters to maintain their curiosity and interest across the schooling years. The narrative will give a brief background of STEM programs, and address four major conditions that must be addressed that an international school must consider as the chosen initiative gets developed across the years. It will shed light on how a change in the investment culture within international schools can create long term educational assets through mid-to-long term goals to strengthen the learning process. The second consideration will address how the socialization process of a new initiate is key to making the program work. The third consideration will address the absence of historically underrepresented groups in the sciences. Finally, the article will address how special-needs should be addressed at the policy level in international schools to promote learning and development of educational programs to service its student population.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs, present around the world, support the notion that there is a relationship between the skills obtained by students who opt for science-driven programs in their formative years, the growth of the science option for youngsters who declare their choice of college career option, and long term economic benefits for the country.  The building of human capital to increase the economic productivity of the labor force for the next three decades can be summarized in one new buzz term in education, STEM initiatives. Since 2008 President Barack Obama created within the USA, the K-12 education federal initiative, to place a renewed emphasis in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Today, these initiatives can also be found taking roots in various countries and at various levels. STEM initiatives can be found at the K-12 level, within university programs at the graduate and undergraduate level, as well as.
The first consideration to address is the tension between the implementation of an educational policy, and the culture of investment at the international level. While implementation of new educational initiatives require a constant but incremental approach to investment, the culture within international schools is reluctant of medium to long term investments in innovative programs. It is a perspective that requires a change of outlook as well as support from the larger learning community to include efforts from all of the participating actors: school administration, teachers, parents, students, along with the school’s governing body. Each participant of the greater learning community has a role to play in ensuring that the foundational basis for an educational policy will be set in place to secure long-term funding. Investments must be made in curriculum planning to generate changes at the instructional level. A sizeable amount should be invested by the institution to promote a certification process to include the representation of all education levels, primary as well as secondary. Professional development funding should be set aside for STEM training to redirect pedagogical training that will re-emphasize the sciences, as well as generate the interest within the active learning community with special attention to be given to the student population. Technology investment must be in place to create the appropriate conditions for the international school to implement science-driven initiatives with various levels of technological input. These investments appear to be a mammoth task at the policy level, but if placed across a strategic plan over 3-5 years, they can become manageable, especially if there is a total commitment and support from the school administration, its pedagogical staff, the parents, and the student body.
The second consideration to creating school-wide policy initiatives at the international level is to create a socialization plan of the program’s main objectives. The implementation plan should circulate among key pedagogues, and stakeholders who can carry out the scheduled program stages at the K-12 level within the adequate time framework. In the case of our STEM experience at the InterAmerican Academy in Ecuador, once the governing body had accepted that the school had the initial infrastructure, the adequate human and financial resources to embark on the project, the main task was to socialize it. We began with the educators who are at the frontlines of the science-related educational practices, math and science teachers. Keep in mind, that all program initiatives can encounter a number of challenges that might slow down implementation. These hurdles can include internal individual decisions regarding time and commitment to seek knowledge via certification, and the identification of an adequate professional development program. Do note that administrators must be careful to approach the socialization process with an inclusive optic. As you identify key pedagogical staff made up of committed teachers who are willing to invest their valuable out-of-school time in the training for themselves, one must be careful not to generate animosity among the remaining staff. One approach that would solve the first obstacle is to include all of your math and science team in the STEM certification process at your international school. For IAA, we chose the latter option. While the school will need to invest a sizeable amount in the process, the greater learning community will gain by getting all key players on board with the initiative.
The third consideration that must be taken into account when seeking to implement a STEM initiative is how to generate and maintain participation within the student population, specifically within the historically underrepresented groups. The increase of females in science related field is one effective approach to reducing gender inequality and to increase a country’s human capital for science and technology fields, critical areas of today’s economy. In the particular case of IAA, statistics gathered and analyzed over the last decade showed that out of the 146 international students who have graduated over the years at IAA, there is an underrepresentation of females in relation to males (f/m ratio for the school is 60/82). Out of the female graduates, 8 girls that made up 13.3% of the female student population declared a STEM major prior to HS graduation. Out of the male graduates about 16 boys that represented 19.5% of the total male student population, declared a STEM major prior to ending their 12th grade. In total, 24 students (16.9% of the graduate population) chose to declare a STEM major over the last 10 years. When compared to the average US population, where 26% of the student body declares a science-related major at the start of their HS years, figure that gets reduced to 15% by graduation time, the InterAmerican Academy follows the same trend (16.9% of graduating students choose to identify with a science-related major for college studies.) Generating more participation from female students requires for a school to seek engaging educators who can identify with the different student cohorts, promote participation while sparking curiosity for the subject area, and act as role models. In the case of international schools, female participation at the science and math level within the pedagogical staff should be paid special attention in order to generate and increase student participation in STEM related subjects.
One final consideration for the success of a STEM initiative within international schools should ensure that: the greater learning community must have institutional mechanisms to incorporate appropriate policies for special-needs students; the international school has set aside appropriate funding for early recognition of them, and have a strategic plan to include continuous professional training for staff to address specific learning styles of students. The earlier a school can recognize specific needs for each individual student, the better prepared the school will be to explore the acquisition of appropriate professional support for its student population as well as implement other educational initiatives (i.e. enrichment, gifted & talented programs). Keep in mind that the concept of special needs can include student who might require more challenging subject area content to keep them engaged due to their advanced cognitive processes. Special needs can also be defined as issues with which youth must cope that could include cognitive, social and behavioral conditions which impede them from staying engaged in the classroom learning process, especially in math and science subject during the early school years. Appropriate policies should start with current an in-depth evaluation of standardized testing data (i.e. MAP, 6+1 Writing Traits) that will allow early recognition and progress of cognitive development/skills acquisition for the student. Based on how data is evaluated and assessed at an international institution, teachers and administration can then proceed to construct appropriate plans of action to address a the learning needs of a particular segment of its student population. One should not rush to create gifted & talented initiatives, without assessing having in place an assessment plan for the student population as a whole. Anecdotal vs. statistical examples at times can blur policy initiatives at international school settings. To have one or two students who perform well in all subjects, does not necessarily imply the presence of gifted cognitive skills. In the case of gifted vs enrichment program initiatives, it is best to evaluate over a 1-2 year period, the intended population to be serviced, and come out with a sound, but consistent plan for those who can be identified as unique, exceptional learners. 
In conclusion, creating a STEM initiative at an international school is a major educational challenge which can be only be successful if the greater learning community, and all of its stakeholders agree of a common plan of action, supported by an economically feasible implementation plan, and have the backing and continuous support of its administration and staff. 21st Century challenges will require 21st Century skills. Educational programs like STEM initiatives at international schools can begin to address the needs of having to solve global issues via ideas and technological skills within a prepared work force, whether you are living abroad (i.e. Ecuador) or in the USA. While the STEM initiative at IAA, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, is in its initial stages, potentially good outcomes can result from a consorted efforts that will promote rigor and high expectations in the math, sciences, and language acquisition. At IAA, it is our goal that a fully developed STEM program not only will promote an increase participation of students in the sciences, but can also address aspects of gender inclusion as well as maintain the passion for learning, a basic component of education.
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 It is suggested that international educators become familiar with Françoys Gagne’s (1995) differentiated model of giftedness and talent (DMGT). Gagne’s definition is distinct in that it clearly distinguishes between giftedness and talent among five major spheres of influence. They act upon the gift or talent of a youngster via its developmental process, interpersonal catalysts, environmental catalysts, and chance.