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The Salvation of STEM

Speaking of STEM, this Post article from a month ago illustrates one big disconnect in our current push for kids to take more STEM classes.

Although a recent study found that almost 75 percent of those who have science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) bachelor’s degrees have jobs in other fields, policymakers, advocates and executives continue to push STEM education as a way to close achievement gaps and produce U.S. innovation.

The bulk of the article is about the college-level fight over STEM with equal weight given to the professor who says “says there is no compelling evidence to support claims of worker shortages” in STEM fields, and the mathematician providing anecdotal proof of the value by observing that students in his field “get jobs before they graduate because of the need for talented workers in fields such as information technology”.

However, don’t bother reading the whole thing. The writer arrives at the real issue behind the emphasis on STEM in K12 education by the second paragraph – and it has nothing to do with jobs.

Officials point to 12 countries that have higher test scores in science and 17 with higher scores in math.

Everything comes back to scores on standardized tests. And if you can mix in something about how US students compare (poorly) to kids in other countries, especially Finland or China, all the better.

But never fear, STEM will save us. Or is it STEAM? Or SSTREEAM?1

The Appearance of Digital Literacy

The title of a recent Wired article claims that Digital Literacy is the “key to the future” – even if we have no idea what that phrase means.

Here in the overly-large school district we talk a lot about “digital” literacy (with it’s interchangeable companion “digital learning”), although few of those using the phrase can offer a coherent definition for it, and often two people will have very different interpretations.

This particular story is based on discussions among “representatives of the tech industry… and academia” that took place at GitHub, one of the geekier places in Silicon Valley and the web. As you might expect, learning to code is a central tenet in this community, but even that idea is vaguely defined.

But “learning to code” is an exceedingly broad concept, and one which without more specifics risks oversimplifying conversations about what digital literacy really means. And how digital literacy is defined is important. This isn’t just about filling Silicon Valley jobs. It’s about educators, policy makers, and parents understanding how to give the rising generations of digital natives the tools they need to define the future of technology for themselves.

Let’s ignore the lame and outdated “digital natives” reference, and assume that we really do want our students, during their time in K12, to develop programming skills to help them define their “future of technology”. Where does that fit in our current concept of “school”? Or, to channel the thoughts of many students, will this be on the test?

Coding is one of those skills that are also puréed into STEM/STEAM/Maker, more ill-defined instructional concepts that in our schools are almost always welded on as before/after school, lunchtime, or pull-out enrichment activities, but rarely included as part of the “regular” curriculum. They are treated as events, rather than as an environment.

If STEAM is so important – and more than one school reformer has declared it to be vital to our national economic future – why isn’t it part of the core curriculum? Instead of a nice extra activity, great for photo ops, offered to a small segment of students, the ones we know will have no trouble passing the spring standardized tests?

As with the tendency to dump computers and other “high-tech” devices (tablets, “smart” boards, etc.) into classrooms with little or no change in instructional practice2, adding STEM and/or coding activities also provides schools – and district administrators, school board members, and other politicians – with “the appearance of teaching digital literacy without providing the actual substance”.

And without having to decide what in the hell “digital literacy” really means.

The Myth of STEM

Another of the somewhat vague concepts currently popular here in the overly-large school district (and many other places) is STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. Subject areas that many politicians and other education experts declare American kids should studying more.

They tell us this is important since the US has a growing shortage of scientists, engineers and other so-called STEM professions. Failure to emphasize those skills in our work force will have any number of disastrous economic and social consequences. Or something like that.

But what if those claims are false? What if the STEM crisis is a myth?

That’s the thesis of a feature story in the IEEE Spectrum, a journal published by a large organization of electrical engineers. The writer says that that predictions of impending shortages of scientists and engineers are nothing new, citing statements going back almost 100 years. In addition, he’s also found many studies directly contradicting those claims.

He makes a good, well documented case that the call to add tens of thousand of new STEM degrees to the US work force may not be necessary or even productive. The article is well worth a read.1

However, does that mean the current efforts to push more STEM topics (which we are trying to morph into STEAM, adding arts to the mix) in the K12 curriculum are completely wrong?

The idea is probably no better or worse than anything else on the long list of somewhat vague, single focus ideas being pushed by ed reformers as a solution to our “failing” school system in this country.2

Certainly, as the author points out in his conclusion, more STEM couldn’t hurt. He notes that there is very much a “STEM knowledge shortage” in the US3 and it’s not necessary to push students into a degree program to improve their understanding of science and technology issues.

But I wonder, what ever happened to the original concept of K12 education, especially high school: giving students the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects, including not-STEM, before settling on one specific area to study in depth after graduation. Is it really necessary to channel kids into a career field before they are even old enough to drive?

1 The comments are also an intelligent extension to the discussion, far above the quality found on most general news and gossip sites like the Huffington Post.

2 “Failing schools” is also something of a myth, certainly when applied to every area of the country as a whole.

3 Seemingly emanating from the Texas State School Board.

STEAM: Don’t Stop With Just Adding an A

It’s pretty hard not to notice that STEM – standing for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – has become a pretty popular shorthand among parts of the education reform movement. It ties into reports that the US may not be producing enough graduates in those fields and thus is another reason why the economy is so screwed up. Or something like that.

Now come proposals to turn STEM into STEAM by adding the arts into the mix.

“There is creativity in STEM itself, super genius in it, … but in arts education, it really is the raison d’etre to be out of the box, to accept the chaos,” said John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence.

Artists and designers, he said, are “risk takers, they can think around corners.”

Hard to argue with that but why stop with the arts?

Work in science, engineering and the rest are not isolated to the US so it’s important that students understand other cultures and maybe even speak their languages.

Creating new technologies also requires an understanding how society has interacted with changes in the past, as well as something about the political and cultural context of today. So, throw social studies into the mix.

Certainly STEM people need to be able to write effectively in order to explain their concepts to the business people and laymen who will use them.

Keep iterating this process enough and you wind up with what used to be called a “liberal education”, the concept that student should graduate from their K12 experience with a general understanding of the breadth of human knowledge. Enough to be able to decide what fields they might want to specialize in the next stage of their education.

As for STEM, I’m not sure focusing the undergraduate curriculum on technical topics is any better than the extremely narrow concentration on reading and math (really just rote arithmetic skills) we have now, the consequence of teaching only what is tested.

The Hypocritical Love Affair With STEM

Alfie Kohn asks an excellent question about the education priorities laid out by our national leaders:  Why do STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects consistently attract so much money and attention?

He has one theory.

As compared with other “softer” disciplines, STEM usually provides us with the reassurance of knowing exactly how much, how many, how far, how fast, which means that these subjects are viewed (often incorrectly) as being inherently objective, therefore more reliable (another questionable leap), and therefore more valuable (yet another one).

Beyond that, I also think much of the love affair with STEM comes from the gut feeling of most people in this country that subjects like math and science are just more serious than social studies or music, like anyone who racks up lots of those credits will automatically get a better job, earn more money, and probably be a better human being.

Either way, there’s a big hypocrisy factor at work here.

Many of the politicians behind the big push for students to take more STEM classes (or at least increased test scores on international tests) are also the ones loudly disparaging the scientists and engineers who produce research and recommendations they disagree with.

Go to college, learn lots of math and science, but don’t use your skills to discover anything that challenges my preconceived ideas.

Great message to offer kids.

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