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Terry Prezens at RoboCup 2018, a robotics contest, in Montreal in June. Mr. Prezens, who won a 2018 Prime Minister's award for teaching excellence in STEM subjects, works at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ont.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

These days, no subjects carry quite the same weight, at least with some parents and policy makers, as STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math.

Not only is it an incentive for many to consider well-endowed private schools for their children, but there’s all the language surrounding STEM: the bedrock of Canadian economic health, the key to Canadian security, the gauge of gender equality in education.

(Few put that kind of weight on Shakespeare these days, unfortunately.)

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So, what are the teachers who teach STEM thinking in terms of new approaches to learning, given that so much is in their hands?

Terry Prezens, a teacher at St. Andrew’s College, a boys’ private school in Aurora, Ont., just north of Toronto, says that there is a strong focus now in STEM on “real world problems.” Lecture-heavy blackboard teaching is out of vogue. Yet the move away from straight lectures actually harkens back to earlier 20th-century education theorists Jean Piaget and John Dewey, who felt that learning should be first-hand and hands on.

“Basically, we all form our own knowledge based on things that we’ve experienced,” Mr. Prezens said. “Certainly over the last few decades, people have been suggesting moving away from lectures, because that’s the worst way to learn, where you just sit passively and listen to the sage on the stage, so to speak. It’s much better for students to be actively involved and construct their learning as they go.”

Practically, this means project work, often creating and building contraptions that have significance and meaning to a child. This is also where schools with strong resources can show off. One student at St. Andrew’s, for instance, built a robot hand that takes its cues from a user’s forearm muscles. Flex your forearm, and the fingers close and form a fist.

This is not about instantaneous learning, though. These projects require problem solving over time and a degree of trial and error. “It’s not necessarily something you solve in 10 minutes or half an hour. It could be something that lasts a week, a month,” said Mr. Prezens, who was among the winners of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM.

A focus on project work, however, doesn’t mean ignoring the basics, whether in physics or electrical engineering or computer programming, the kind of basics normally taught from a blackboard. These are still taught, but are learned when needed, when it is more applicable to the project, so “you don’t control 100 per cent of the knowledge that they get, but they get more, and they get it better,” Mr. Prezens said.

However, with straight math, in other words, learning to solve straight equations, there is some argument that a heavily problem-solving-centric approach can go too far.

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“I would say maybe Canada is returning more to a balanced math approach. The balance is in how much effort we should be putting on learning basic skills, versus how much we should put on problem solving,” said Sarah Sils, another STEM teaching award winner.

Ms. Sils has been teaching at St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School, a school for girls in Oakville, Ont., for the past decade. She currently teaches science and advanced math in Grades 8 and 9, as well as the school-wide robotics program.

“I think we got really big into problem solving and discovery and conceptual thinking, and we started to lag on the basic skills. I think everybody is realizing that you actually need both,” she argued. This doesn’t exclude problem solving, but it’s about striking a balance where needed, and using math software, for instance, to make learning fun and engaging at a student’s particular skill level.

“You get bored if it gets too easy, and you can get frustrated if it’s too hard. So if you can meet them at their level, that’s where you’re going to have the biggest impact,” Ms. Sils said.

And the students are responding by getting more involved, she added.

“I would say that for sure the robotics program is having an impact, because we have 25 per cent of the high-school girls on the team. First of all, they are trying it, which is important. And then it’s often engaging them to consider STEM careers,” Ms. Sils said. About half of the school’s graduates in recent years have gone on to STEM-related postsecondary programs, as opposed to five years ago, when only roughly a quarter of St. Mildred graduates were choosing STEM postsecondary studies.

Each school, of course, has different approaches. Waldorf schools are at the other end of the spectrum by teaching technology in the earlier grades at a distant arm’s length.

“We are very low tech in Waldorf schools. Yet in the middle school years, Grades 6, 7 and 8, we know we have to teach the student all about online research, everything from fake news to being a good digital citizen,” said Lisa Hitch, another STEM teaching award winner. She has taught for eight years at the independent Sunrise Waldorf School, which runs from pre-school to Grade 8, in Duncan, B.C., a small city on Vancouver Island. She has taught the same class through the younger grades up to Grade 8, and her students are now graduating to other schools.

Waldorf high schools usually have an extensive curriculum in coding and other aspects of technology, but Waldorf programs for younger children often stress interpersonal classroom learning, becoming a refuge from the screen-laden world outside. So much so that many parents who work at tech’s ground zero, at giant Silicon Valley companies, are sending their children to low-tech programs in their areas, such as Waldorf School of the Peninsula in California.

At Sunrise, the students start to learn about online research and plagiarism in Grades 6 and 7. “And then in Grade 8, it also gets more about social media, a lot on those pitfalls to look out for, and changing your habits to being more of a producer than a consumer online,” Ms. Hitch said, noting that the classwork also focuses on problem solving and longer-term projects. The difference here is when to introduce the computer into the classroom.

“It’s not so much about a computer needing to be in there [in the classroom] to learn about it. I guess that’s the main point. You can learn about it without having the computer in front of you. And when they needed it for doing research in the classroom, I had it,” Ms. Hitch said.

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