Guest Blog: Learning to Use STEM to Teach Integration on a TOP Study Tour

July 24, 2019

© Wood Powell Transatlantic Outreach Program

The Transatlantic Outreach Program (TOP) provides North American educators of social studies and STEM subjects, as well as workforce decision makers, with classroom materials, workshops, virtual exchanges, and study tours. These bring North Americans and Germans together to enhance the global competence of students, to bridge the “skills gap” between education and workforce development, and to strengthen the grassroots bonds of the transatlantic partnership.

This guest blog post was written by 2018 TOP fellow and South Carolina educator Kirstin Bullington about how she plans to teach her students differently about Germany following her time abroad on a TOP study tour.

By Kirstin Bullington (TOP 2018)

Before traveling to Germany, I had a preconceived notion of how my students and I would benefit from my TOP study tour: I would learn best practices about Energiewende (energy revolution) to incorporate into my clean energy engineering classes, which would help me facilitate a virtual exchange and collaboration between my students and a class in Germany. In my mind, I saw Germany as a leader in vocational training and clean energy, and thought that my course content would be the most impacted by my tour experiences. I did indeed gain a wealth of information to incorporate into my students’ energy projects, particularly in optimizing biogas and solar tracking, which will help me provide a more complex global engineering context. However, the greatest lesson I learned from my TOP study tour was the revelation that STEM instruction and outreach can not only be used to prepare students for technical majors and careers, but also as an intentional tool to achieve a more integrated society.

One of my original goals for visiting Germany was to explore the dual education system in greater depth, and determine what best practices my students and district might be able to emulate in terms of apprenticeship and alternative post-secondary options.  As a school district, we have begun to seek apprenticeships with local businesses, who are enthusiastic about the concept, but sometimes struggle to sell the idea to students’ families, as there has been a great deal of emphasis placed on preparing every child for college.

After visiting the Bosch Vocational Training Center in Stuttgart and learning more about the multiple opportunities for advanced training and education that the organization provides for its apprentices and employees, I believe I am better equipped to help my students make an effective argument towards the advantages of apprenticeships. Moreover, the North American Vocational Training Center for Bosch is located in our state, South Carolina, so my school is planning to organize a field study this fall to introduce that opportunity to interested students as an alternative technical pathway. Another benefit from visiting the Bosch and Trumpf corporations was the confirmation that German companies are also seeking future employees with exceptional soft skills and problem-solving abilities. This is the same message that we are hearing from the industry representatives that serve on our school’s advisory board, so it was helpful to have the notion reinforced that our strategic plan is in line with the needs of global corporations.

Another way in which lessons from the TOP study tour will impact my students’ perspective of Germany is through a direct exchange of ideas and solutions with an advanced English class from Berlin. I was paired with Ms. Christina Gruhle, an instructor at Heinrich-Schliemann Gymnasium as part of the Going Green initiative, and together we have developed a sustainability lesson plan for this fall to span the entire semester. While the tour prepared me for some of the questions my students will pose when comparing German and American energy policies and practices, they will get an even greater understanding from sharing their discoveries with their German peers and receiving feedback on their proposed solutions.

Perhaps the greatest impact the TOP study tour had on my instruction was one that goes beyond the classroom: using STEM outreach as an intentional tool to better integrate communities. In my opinion, one of the greatest strengths of my school is that we serve six different high schools, and as such, our class populations tend to be highly diverse in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomics, and experiences. Projects in Next Energy are all collaborative, and it has been my experience that the best solutions have been generated by heterogeneous groups, as the students have brought different ideas and talents to their respective groups. However, prior to the TOP tour, I never really considered using STEM outreach to intentionally bring that experience of working with diverse groups to help integrate newcomers within our community. An innovation school in Bochum, Zentrum ISD (ZDI), shared that they use robotics and other STEM projects to encourage friendships between native German and newcomer pupils. What they have discovered is similar to what I have witnessed in my own diverse classes: the participants are not only successful in their project outcomes, but more importantly, learn a great deal about each other, which promotes better community integration. When Mr. Trimborn of ZDI explained this strategy, I realized that a similar approach could be applied in our STEM outreach activities, as we have a significant number of newcomer families within our district. I have spoken with the district’s innovation incubator director, and we are working together to establish a similar program this fall. If we are successful, we will not only be able to encourage a more diverse population to consider careers in STEM, but also we will contribute to ensuring that all of our students feel welcome and included within the district.

All in all, my experiences on the TOP STEM study tour will have a great impact on the way my students and I perceive Germany, the United States, and each country’s energy policies and practices. More significantly, I have no doubt that the best practices gleaned from German vocational opportunities and STEM outreach strategies will lead to positive changes within our school district. As both Germany and the United States struggle with how to achieve unity within diverse populations, I am grateful for the entire tour experience, as it has inspired me to use STEM as the bridge to a more integrated community.

Kirstin Bullington is a Next Energy Engineering Instructor at the Richland Two Institute of Innovation in Columbia, South Carolina, USA.

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