STEMming Thoughts

Posted on April 19, 2013

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STEM is “in”, and has been, for some time. With a vision of making students more competitive in a 21st century global community, the call has been out to push students to make more progress in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). It is now hard to turn to any education corner without seeing a reference to STEM—and resources have popped up all over the place, from state initiatives to private efforts.

This has been accompanied with reforms in the education system and funding to match. There is still much work to do, but it is clear that the STEM education movement is moving along in k-12 education and university campuses.

As an idea, STEM represents a great vision. On face value it is hard to argue for a focused approach to get more students interested and represented in STEM fields into higher education and the workforce. It addresses recognized needs, especially with all the work being done, and to be done, with diversifying STEM—to increase the representation of students of color in higher education and in fields beyond.

Studies have been showing that Latino and Black young boys score lowest on math and science tests. Surrounding that are questions of whether and how cultural and gender biases affect student success future career options.

Surrounding all this, I have two (among many other) thoughts:

  • Views of “minority success” in STEM
  • How STEM still relies on effective teaching, especially in math and science

On the first point, a brief but  notable thought that comes to me is how the idea of “socializing the losses and privatizing the success” seems to resonate regarding success in STEM for students of color—if one succeeds it is because one is exceptional. If one fails, it is because it is representative of the culture and ethnicity.

In a way, we see this play out in many other settings in our culture—how people of color as individuals can easily be framed to “speak for” or represent whole communities. Sometimes it may be appropriate, but often it is a misrepresentation based on bias. I do think that we should proudly acknowledge our cultural and ethnic traits in STEM fields. Done well, it serves an inviting and relevant connector to these fields. For this you can point to a lot of good work and efforts by organizations like SACNAS, Minority Postdoc, and Ciencia PR, among several.

On the second point, it is a broader question thinking about the teaching of STEM—having to do with curriculum and teacher preparedness, particularly in k-12.

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These thoughts are based on my experience having worked in the classroom at the middle school and high school level, as well as working with teaching credential students.

Success in getting students in STEM fields in higher education and beyond will still rely on the foundational teaching of sciences and math in elementary and high school. Part of that reform is coming to many states with the Common Core Standards, and the new Next Generation Science Standards. The other part is in thinking about what makes STEM “different” than what has been done before.

The “good” from those efforts is that it brings back some balance away from the high stake testing approaches that pushed learning to more rote learning and “teaching to the test”. Essentially, the new approaches take a stronger focus on “conceptual understanding”, providing more focus and coherence to the subject.

But there lies part of the challenge as well. Teachers need to re-shift to instruction that provides more of that conceptual understanding. That can be difficult. Necessary, but difficult.

Part of the challenge goes back to the difficulty of teaching math and science. Scientists and mathematicians know there is a process to what they do and why they enjoy it. There is some love and passion to pursue in those fields. But in the process we lose those that COULD love it and end up not finding that connection—even for students who will not necessarily pursue those fields in the future.

I offer myself as an example. I did not take a “STEM path”. I am not a scientist in a laboratory or out in the field. My focus was in history and art. Yet, I really connected to the wonder and magic of math and science. I do not recall all the procedural or computational fluency behind the formulas, algorithms, and steps, but I strove to “understand” what was going on beyond the steps and process (what is calculus good for? Fundamentally how is tree awesome?)

So if I had chosen a STEM path, I think I would have had a good shot—even those diagnostic tests in high school said I should have pursued engineering as a major.

But going back to the teaching and teachers: many teachers will succeed with the new education paradigms, but others will struggle. Part of that comes from their own education experience in which they “hated math” or were “bored in science”. Part of it comes from how a focus on conceptual understanding is harder to teach than just procedural fluency and more so than computational fluency. We can memorize the formula for photosynthesis, but how would you answer where the matter for a big tree comes given a little seed?  You can follow the steps to do two-digit multiplication, but how would you explain why that algorithm works? What does it look like visually?

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Ultimately, I think a big part STEM is (or should be) really about thinking how to develop a solid critical and analytical base of thought in these fields—which should be part of a broader discussion of what we want as an “education”. I also think that is why we see other fields “adding on” to STEM. You see efforts in the arts to create “STEAM”, and in environmental education with E-STEM and Greening STEM. The message is that other fields of study can help with this work, but really it means that if you have a balanced and interdependent approach to education, all subjects areas will thrive. On that note, the other social sciences should not be left behind—a call for ESSSTEAM? (Environment, Social Studies, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics).  (Bias check: my teaching started in social studies)

To close, success in STEM will come from how those fields connect in culturally and practical ways with all communities—which include ethnic communities but also professions such as those in business. But it will also come in looking at the broad educational structure on which it will thrive. That means not just thinking of STEM as a special agenda, but how it can inform and add to the reform of education for “better education”. Ultimately I think it comes to addressing part of this question:

What if we just focused on good teaching across all the subject areas, and used assessment that informed the instruction but not dictated the process?

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Additional links:

California STEM Learning Network

STEAM

From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand by Steven Ross Pomeroy

A Smart Investment in STEM Education by Jose Hernandez

STEM Blog

Common Science Standards Make Formal Debut

10 Startling Stats About Minorities in STEM

Tapping the STEM Potential of Latinos

Promoting STEM en Español to 3rd Graders

Posted in: Education