When James Wu became the new principal of Taipei Fuhsing Private School last year, he had ambitious dreams to expand the 3,500-student K-12 school by building a second campus. This second campus, to be dubbed the “Innovation Academy” would focus on a problem-based STEM/STEAM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, art and math). However, Wu also knew it would take some time and knowledge-building to bring the 75-year-old institution up to the cutting edge of 21st-century education.
That’s where NIU STEAM comes in. As part of their learning process, Wu and 14 of his school’s deans and administrators visited Northern Illinois University in early February 2020 for a week of school visits, field trip observations and teacher professional development organized by NIU STEAM.
Kristin Brynteson, director of professional development for NIU STEAM, says, “It was a pleasure to welcome Principal Wu and his team and to hear about their goals. I enjoyed learning what their classroom environment and instruction look like and getting a chance to learn from their rich history. It was also exciting to hear their questions and to have discussions around STEAM learning from our two perspectives.”
“STEM has already become a world issue,” Wu says, “but in Taiwan, I would say the STEM curriculum is still in the kindergarten stage, so we need to come to the U.S. to learn from you.”
“Everyone is talking about STEM,” he continues, “but not many schools are actually doing that correctly. [We think] the NIU model is the right one.”
Rachel Chen, dean of the elementary bilingual division at Fuhsing, was particularly impressed with the NIU STEM Read fourth-grade school field trip that the group observed. “I didn’t know what to expect before I came, but I realized I’ve learned something new every day,” she says. “I’m very impressed with how you incorporate reading into the STEM program. So far, we do STEM only in science class, following the textbook … but we never really thought about how this can expand [to be] cross-curricular.”
Chen says the school has begun cross-curricular planning around a common topic each semester (this year’s focus is on loving and protecting the earth), so she’s excited to see how STEM activities could be connected to this shared topic in all classes.
Both Chen and Dorcas Juan, head of bilingual education and director of college counseling at Fuhsing, found the focus on allowing students to make mistakes and accept failure as a part of the learning process to be the most challenging aspect of the STEAM mindset.
“I think in Taiwan, in Asian philosophy … we don’t like failure,” Juan says. “Students don’t like to have failure or experience mistakes, and so we always tell them how to do things and give them a standard answer. But when we come here, we see that in doing STEM students need to learn by making mistakes, students need to learn by experiencing failure, and then they know how to make … decisions.”
Juan continues, “For the teachers, it’s hard to see students fail when we can tell them the right answer and then that saves time. Especially when we have a lot to teach, and we think that if we give them time to [fail and try again], then we won’t have time to finish everything.”
However, Juan notes, “If we can plan the lesson well enough, just like we saw this morning … the lesson plan actually covers everything, even though it doesn’t seem that the teacher does a lot of teaching. By doing hands-on activities, by trial and error, students learn and that’s actually what stays in their minds longer.”
As they begin to imagine a new STEAM curriculum for Fuhsing School, Wu and his team are grateful for the guidance NIU STEAM has offered so far, and they’re looking forward to continued opportunities to work together.
“For an old school, which is already 75 years old, to come up with a new curriculum is not easy,” Wu says. “So we could be asking NIU for help supporting us, guiding us. When we set up the second campus, we would like to bring the STEAM curriculum inside and make it happen.”
“I wish you had NIU in Taipei!” Chen adds. “I think you have done so much. I’m very touched. I love the people here. They’re all friendly, and I can see how much you want to try to help schools around here. I think you’re helping students here to see a vision, see a dream… a future dream that they can approach, and I think you are doing a wonderful job.”
For more information about NIU STEAM, in the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development visit niu.edu/niusteam.