Sunday, May 16, 2010

More on STEM Education

I've had a couple of interesting follow-up conversations about my "Igniting Young Minds" symposium blog, so I thought I'd sort out some other thoughts I had.

As D2 and others have pointed out to me, one of the biggest challenges with a conference about getting more people interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is that the audience is mostly self-selecting. If you're interested enough in the topic to attend in the first place, you don't need additional encouragement. You're looking for support, not interest. Educators in grades K-6 need the most help because they're generalists, trying to teach young minds everything. Generally one has to get to middle school before teachers are specializing in one particular subject. The ones who need the STEM-educated students the most are employers. That leaves the rest of the general public to fill in those blanks somehow...and, again, not everyone is interested.

I agree with Dan Satterfield that everyone should have a well-rounded education. My fellow English lit peers looked at me strangely when I told them I was taking geology or meteorology or history or accounting in the midst of all my upper-level courses. The tendency toward practical, specialized education has only become stronger since I went for my B.A. (1987-91). And really, I can't say that I blame students or parents: they want to know they can get a job after they graduate.

I was a little insane when I went to school for my first degree--and Mom helped, God love her--because I was more concerned about studying something that interested me, and I figured the money would come later. Which is how I ended up hearing "How does it feel to have no marketable skills?" from Father Dan. Despite that, I did get a job, albeit one selling t-shirts, pins, and backscratchers at Epcot, but that was only temporary. It took me five years from graduation to get a job using my degree--answering complaint letters for Walt Disney World--but the fact remains that I got the job; all it took was persistence.

By the time I went for my second degree, an M.A. in technical writing, I had a very specific end in mind, and yes, a specific career. I had accepted the credential-based economy we now have. I probably already had the knowledge and skills to be a technical writer, but without a little piece of paper/cloth saying that, employers weren't likely to hire me as one.

But getting back to STEM, the only way to ensure a "well-rounded" education is to require a longer period or broader range of "gen eds" (general education) courses for all majors--not just "humanities," but economics, hard math/science, and whatever we decide will give 21-year-olds enough knowledge to function in the adult world once they graduate. Perhaps general science or general technology courses would be of benefit?

One point I brought up last week is just that not everyone is wired to like or do STEM. That doesn't mean students shouldn't be required to learn it; the problem becomes how hard to you push it? And again, if you don't have good teachers at all levels of your education, your odds of getting into a STEM-related career is iffy. And there's this other aspect of things, which tends to get overlooked, but which I noticed when I started getting educated on learning styles and personality types: it's not so much that STEM attracts "geeks," but often it does attract very intelligent individuals who might or might not have excellent social or teaching skills. So the next trick becomes: if you have someone who's very interested in science or math or engineering but isn't the most dynamic or motivational educator, can you train them to be so? I'd like to think you can. As with anything, it requires practice.

Another item that came through loud and clear from the Igniting Young Minds symposium was that the STEM classroom experience has to be made more practical, more engaging, more hands-on. Academic understanding of geology or meteorology is one thing; applying it to the real world is something else. Do we require more lab time for STEM classes? Rewrite textbooks for more real-world applications? All of the above? Perhaps.

And finally there's the issue of resources: if you've got students in "rich" schools (a side effect of schools being funded by the local tax base--a subject that drives my buddy Doc right up the wall), they'll be able to get more labs, better textbooks, etc. What do you do about students in poor neighborhoods? How do you ensure that students understand the basics of biology if some textbook writers are wrestling with whether to include evolution and all the related theory and practice that goes with it? 

Our nation is fighting some very old battles, and the end result is a confused curriculum, focused on some very specific test requirements that leave little room for patient inquiry or creative innovation. And it's the kids and, ultimately, all of us who will suffer. Other nations do not question the value of studying STEM subjects vigorously or of expecting students to learn what must be learned to develop a high-tech civilization. What do they know that we seem to have forgotten?


lin said...

In his book Inside American Education, Thomas Sowell points out that the percent of education funding that is actually spent in the classroom is too small. De-funding the federal education bureaucracy and disenfranchising education's government unions would help also. Competition improves products and lowers the costs of producing them.

Anonymous said...

I still owe you my thoughts on what I meant by Stealth Stem.

Also, I am beginning to think we are using the "square peg round hole" method of educating today's youth, who are QUITE different from the kinds of students we were when we were in school. You know, maybe it's time we actually take a giant step back and realize that "just because we've always done it that way" doesn't make it the best way. Prenksy's Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants and other works, %20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

provide some insight, I believe.

And, I always enjoy keeping it "rementi" fresh - the captcha du jour.

Yes, Passion Flower is my Stripper Name.

Oh, crud, I spippo'd my response requiring yet another captcha.