Lauren Mikulak wants students to have STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) experiences that are realistic, relatable and applicable in the real world. She also wants them to have fun. For her, that looks like introducing them to the many career opportunities in STEM, from astronaut to zoologist.
“Jobs like being an educator and nursing are all wonderful jobs, but students might not know what a computer science major does,” Mikulak said. “They might not know what a zoologist does or that it even exists.”
Mikulak said people sometimes ask her why she introduces elementary school students to such career opportunities so many years before they enter the working world. She said it’s not so much an attempt to influence the kind of work students might do as adults. Exposing students to different STEM career fields is a chance to spark their interest, she said.
It's never too early to get exposed to what's going on in the real world. It’s important to me to provide personally authentic learning experiences for students.
Mikulak said that when what’s happening in the classroom relates to what’s happening in their real lives, students tend to want to learn more.
Early in her teaching career, she had the opportunity to serve as a full-time maker space teacher where she provided “hands-on learning for students to gain 21st century skills needed throughout their education,” she said.
That meant she got to develop a curriculum that was based on the four principles of STEM through an interdisciplinary approach. Mikulak said she also got to make community connections that provided her students with genuine learning experiences by exposing them to different careers. She said those experiences encouraged her students to develop critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and presentation skills.
She said that position opened up her own interest in STEM and made her passionate in the pursuit of making STEM relevant for her students.
“I found that hands-on learning for them was so engaging,” she recalled.
Through her own exposure to the STEM world, she also quickly realized the dearth of women trained in technology and science fields. Understanding that her very presence as a STEM educator could be part of changing that, she makes it a point to encourage girls and young women to consider careers in STEM.
Mikulak is an ISTE certified educator and now in her third year as an instructional STEM coach at Macdonough School. Her school recently became Middletown, CT’s first STEM-focused school and its first Choice school. As a Choice school, parents can apply for an opportunity to enroll their child at Macdonough School rather than attending the traditional public school that their student might be assigned to attend based on where they live.
As a coach, Mikulak works with about 15 classroom teachers, their grade-level teams and their specialists to help them incorporate STEM into their instruction and develop interdisciplinary units of study that are suitable for project-based learning.
It’s important to me to make sure that the work is focused and the work is meaningful, not only for our students but for educators as well. So developing these interdisciplinary units of study gives our students the opportunity to apply multiple content areas and multiple skills within a single lesson.
Mikulak said each trimester, each grade focuses on a problem or a real-world phenomenon that they want to investigate in the Middletown community, on the school grounds, or in their neighborhood that needs a solution.
For instance, Macdonough School second-graders focused on a “trash to treasure” project. Mikulak said that means they looked for trash around the school grounds and made observations to understand more about pollution and its origins. The students had to figure out where the trash came from and develop ideas to encourage people to stop polluting the community.
Mikulak said students also got to interview an expert in the field. In this case, it happened to be a parent who is a professor at the University of Hartford studying the issue and making artwork out of recycled trash and plastic.
“She showed us her artwork and she's done work over in India to reduce pollution and to advocate for keeping our water and our grounds clean,” Mikulak said. “That works their interest too, knowing that people do this for their career and they do this in real life.”
The students ultimately collected different plastics and recyclable materials and other things they’d found thrown on the ground to make their own artwork. At the end of the trimester, they presented their project to their families, fellow students and members of the Middletown community.
Mikulak, who is a 2019 Henry Ford Innovation Nation Teacher Innovator Award recipient, said this kind of hands-on, collaborative learning environment, where students get to invent solutions, tinker, discover new ideas and determine what is important to them is what she enjoyed most as a student.
I always had great educators. I feel like the ones I connected with the most were the ones that kept it kind of open-ended, where I was applying skills that I learned or things that I was interested in.
She said she wanted to create that kind of learning environment when she was in the classroom and she enjoys coaching other educators to cultivate it in their classrooms.
“Students are more successful when they take ownership of their own learning,” she said.