Teachers ‘Go Bananas’ Over Real-World Connections to STEM

Sparta schools administrator Tom Steward at Kwik Trip's distribution center

Sparta schools administrator Tom Steward views "the banana room" at Kwik Trip's distribution center in La Crosse, Wis.

How can a room full of bananas help teachers get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

Secretary Duncan and other national leaders say that U.S. students need to complete a rigorous math and science coursework so they’re ready to compete in the global economy. Wisconsin educator Tom Steward was stirred by that call to action but recognized some inherent challenges.

“Students did not see the connection between what was being taught and how they could ever use it,” said Steward, who frequently observes STEM classes as the director of curriculum and instruction for Sparta Area School District.

To help make these connections, 60 teachers from Sparta and eight other rural school districts in western Wisconsin got bunches of inspiration from bananas. As part of a two-week summer academy for STEM teachers, on July 25 Steward led a visit to Kwik Trip’s distribution center in La Crosse, Wisc. to learn strategies to make their lessons come alive. Steward is a founder of the program, which works with regional businesses as well as the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Western Technical College and the U.S. Army at nearby Fort McCoy to help STEM teachers make lessons relevant.

Steward and the consortium’s other founders recognized that teachers — and especially teachers in rural areas — often teach in isolation from each other and from other potential resources that could help them teach more contextually. In response, they produced this “brainchild” that ultimately became the Western Wisconsin STEM Consortium, he said. The program was awarded a competitive Math and Science Partnership grant in 2008 from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which in turn received the federal funding by formula from ED.

Here’s how bananas can make scientific principles come to life: As teachers watched Kwik Trip forklift drivers load boxes of the fruit nearly to the ceiling of a storeroom, they saw a number of scientific principles at work, teachable moments.

“The forklift driver knows that too much weight on the forks going up an incline plane with a steep angle may not be possible,” explained Steward. “That’s due to the push of gravity down on the forks and the way the weight is distributed.”

A lesson plan based on this real-life scenario will soon be posted to the consortium’s website at http://www.uwstout.edu/wwsc/index.cfm, which already includes numerous lessons developed through the program that help students make those lifelong connections between science and the real world.

Julie Ewart
Julie Ewart serves in the Great Lakes Regional Office for ED. She and Cynthia Dorfman, Director of Regional Operations for ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach, participated in the visit to Kwik Trip’s distribution center.

Read the President’s plan for Improving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education.