STEM has become an education buzzword, due in no small part to the White House’s Educate to Innovate initiative, which stresses the importance of improving U.S. students’ skills in science, technology, engineering and math. For Dr. Reagan Flowers, a focus on these areas of education just scratches the surface.
Flowers founded C-STEM (the C stands for communication) in 2002, seven years before the White House passed its initiative. She believes that fostering communication skills along with STEM as well as using a project-based learning approach is the answer to improving students’ abilities. C-STEM is an education consulting service that provides educators with student curriculums, teacher training, instructional tools, high-performance accountability and literacy.
In project-based learning, students learn through real world problem solving, spending their time with C-STEM performing hands-on projects as opposed to using more conventional learning tactics, such as listening to lectures or completing worksheets.
Flowers feels this interactive style of teaching has allowed C-STEM to create a unique environment among its students. C-STEM teachers go one step beyond giving kids the skills they need to make change happen, also empowering the students by showing them how to communicate and collaborate in the real world to get things done. “Kids want to give us solutions, but adults think they are kids and couldn’t have solutions, right?” Flowers asks. “Well they do have something to say and they do have solutions and we give them that voice.”
Many students attend C-STEM classes outside of school, as an extracurricular activity, but in Texas, HB5 has added a STEM track at public schools, paving a way for students to take C-STEM as a course elective. “Kids often say they wish C-STEM was happening in school during the day because it’s flexible,” Flowers says. “Kids want to experience more hands on, project-based learning.”
Besides just being a form of learning that children seem to enjoy, C-STEM courses provide impressive results. For instance, in 12 years of classes, 100 percent of C-STEM students have passed their standardized tests. And more than 95 percent have graduated from high school. Of the students who participated in C-STEM’s 2002 pilot program, 100 percent graduated from both high school and college.
Some big businesses have benefitted from C-STEM’s curriculum as well. Graduates of the program have gone on to work at such companies as Microsoft, BASF, the Texas Department of Transportation and Centerpoint Energy. “They are everywhere in terms of STEM industries and we’re very proud of their achievements and what they’ve been able to obtain by getting their start with a C-STEM education,” Flowers says.
In 12 years, Flowers has been able to grow C-STEM from a small pilot program to an international initiative. Since its beginning, C-STEM has helped more than 100,000 students and experienced increased revenues from $5,000 to more than $3 million.
When choosing which schools to partner with, Flowers goes where she feels there’s a need – and that’s everywhere. “Basically any school that has children in the building – they need STEM,” Flowers says.
Currently C-STEM is offered in 26 schools in Texas, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana along with schools in the Dominican Republic, Botswana and the United Kingdom. Flowers feels that connecting students with each other internationally readies them for life in a global economy. “The more we can get kids actively engaged in competition with children from other countries, the more prepared they are,” she says. “It also opens doors for them to take advantage of learning abroad opportunities for internships or college or graduate studies.”
A Switch to Project-Based Learning
Project-based learning is a relatively new technique and one that some educators have trouble implementing. As an external partner, C-STEM is able to help educators work with the existing framework inside their schools.
“There are no instructions or guidelines on how students are going to innovate and create solutions,” Flowers says. “It’s a lot of discovery, a lot of innovation, a lot of research, a lot of testing of theories and hypotheses and looking at how we do things and how we can do things better.”
For some teachers, not having a road map or a recipe can be a challenge. “Teachers aren’t often comfortable in working in that space because they don’t work in that space a whole lot,” Flowers says.
Despite the discomfort some teachers have with hands on learning, Flowers has found that many educators are dedicated to overcoming the challenge to get the best results. “They are finding relevancy in the work,” she says. Educators who offer C-STEM classes are also able to connect to state standards to help them accomplish necessary achievement goals. “We see teachers developing their methodologies to further evolve themselves as leaders,” Flowers says.
Supporting educators as they incorporate project-based learning in their classrooms is a crucial part of what C-STEM does. “We’re not successful without the teachers,” Flower says. “If we don’t invest in them and connect their classrooms to the real world, they cannot effectively develop students who are ready for work or college in the STEM space.”
Creativity in STEM
The C-STEM tagline is, “Everyone is an artist and an engineer.” It’s a phase that Flowers finds holds true for all children and educators. Part of her job as CEO of C-STEM includes creating a curriculum each year that is innovative, creative, hands-on, project-based and related to real world issues and STEM. It’s a challenge she’s met time and time again due to her philosophy that treats each child as an individual.
“You will have children who will tell you ‘I do not like math,’ ‘I do not like science,’ so you find a way to trick them into liking math and science,” Flowers says. And that’s where she taps into the artist she sees in everyone. C-STEM curriculum integrates painting, sculpting, film making, photography and other arts into math and science to keep all students, from Pre-K to 12th grade, fully engaged.
C-STEM has a five-pillar partnership model and partners with corporations, professional organizations, K-12 school systems, colleges and universities, and public servants. Flowers believes sticking to that partnership model helps get C-STEM into communities where it’s needed. C-STEM uses its ties to businesses to help get the word out about the group’s mission. And thanks to the Educate to Innovate initiative, it’s not as hard a sell as it used to be.
An Uphill Beginning
Flowers began her career as a science teacher at Jack Yates High School in Houston. “I thought I was a phenomenal teacher,” she says. “I had an overinflated ego.”
One year, Flowers brought a grant before NASA to take her students to a national robotics competition. When they arrived, she was shocked to find that she and her students were the only minorities participating. The realization gave her a sobering reality check.
“I realized we were really behind the eight ball in terms of my preparation to be an effective teacher as well as my students being on par for where they needed to be to successfully compete in that space,” Flowers says. When she approached her school district with a list of what she needed to better prepare her students, she found the district was unable to help her, and that’s when she developed C-STEM.
Flowers herself had a challenging academic life early on. She failed second grade and managed to make it to fifth grade without ever learning how to perform multiplication. The thing that kept her going and turned things around was the support of teachers who believed in her and saw her potential.
“With C-STEM, I’ve taken that care and nurturing teachers gave me in becoming the CEO and put it into the structure of our organization, the services and the delivery,” Flowers says.
Flowers has overcome her own educational stumbling blocks along with a lack of support from school districts in a remarkable way, growing C-STEM from a fledging idea to a highly successful organization, all the while making do with whatever facilities she’s had at hand. In 2002, C-STEM began with 20 kids in the back of a school building where Flowers turned the janitor’s space into a makeshift classroom.
Now, C-STEM gets support from major players including Shell Oil, Halliburton, State Farm Insurance and Comerica Bank. “We’ve gotten great interest from the corporate sector because they are interested in investing in their future workforce and they understand you have to grow and develop talent,” Flowers says. She is proud of the corporations who have chosen to partner with C-STEM and feels these high-profile collaborations shows her students the many opportunities that are open to them.
In addition, C-STEM stays on top of tech trends by working with high tech corporations as well as young interns, both of whom offer insights into where innovation is heading, while helping keep curriculum fresh and timely.
All of her hard work hasn’t gone without notice, either. This year, the White House named Flowers as one of its STEM Access Champions of Change, a designation that pays tribute to her tireless work inspiring students and supporting more access to STEM for all students.