By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Is STEM—the focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—a concept or a curriculum? Is it a reaction or a reinvention? Is it four distinct disciplines (S, T, E, M) or one (S+T+E+M)? Let’s open with a bit of background on STEM and look at its challenges.
Based on the depth of your search, you will find that STEM originated in
1957 with the launch of Sputnik (Powell, 2007),
1961 with Kennedy’s call to send an American safely to the moon (NASA, 2013),
1998 with Papert’s keys to the new learning of the digital century (Papert, 2000), or
2001 with the birth of the acronym SMET, which became STEM (Heitin, 2013).
Whether STEM emerged in the mid-20th century or with the onset of the 21st, it represents the intersection between US education and a global workforce operating in a digital world.
A 2011 New York Times article (Drew, 2011) brings fascinating insight into the STEM discussion. The journalist writes of middle and high school students being fully engaged and truly enjoying “building their erector sets and dropping eggs into water to test the first law of motion.” However, that enthusiasm for engineering disappears as they encounter the “math-science death march” their freshman year of college. Approximately 40% of freshmen who enter college with a STEM-declared major change majors or fail to obtain a degree because college math and science is just too hard.
“Approximately 40% of freshmen who enter college with a STEM-declared major change majors or fail to obtain a degree because college math and science is just too hard.”
This is certainly no indictment of Pre-K to 12th grade education. Engagement, active learning, design, and problem solving are critical to learning. However, when students enter college, in addition to a solid math and science foundation, they must organize their study schedule and complete multiple assignments with resources they find, evaluate, and use. Our students are prepared academically, but the stamina for extensive—and constant—amounts of work eludes perhaps as many of 40% of them.
Teachers guide students to greater stamina by leading them just beyond the edges of capability. There is little need to add mountains of new challenges for students to solve because part of stamina is the willingness to return to a project again and again, perfecting it just a bit more with each fresh approach. If the egg didn’t break from six feet, what design changes are required to protect it from 12 feet? How would you test your design theory without risking an egg? Do you anticipate dropping many eggs in your career? If not, what design challenges might you face in your line of work?
“Teachers guide students to greater stamina by leading them just beyond the edges of capability.”
Someone designed the ergonomic keyboard, the standing desk, and that “chair” that is really you sitting on a large balance ball. Some person, or more likely a team of persons, identified a challenge, solved it, and then solved it again and again, each time in a new way. Stamina.
Building vast vocabulary reserves builds stamina. In the middle grades, learning vocabulary shifts. Explicit instruction—particularly in the content areas—leads the way and is supported by independent learning. By middle school, explicit instruction is supported to a greater degree than before by independent vocabulary acquisition via context and independent reading. Approximately 2% of the words fifth-grade students read while engaged in independent reading are unfamiliar. They learn about 20% of those unfamiliar words on their own (Anderson and Nagy, 1993). If they read 10,000 words a year, that’s 400 new words. What if they read 100,000? 1,000,000? Stamina.
STEM disciplines require significant vocabulary acquisition skills. Furthermore, these disciplines require computer-like efficiency with basic math facts and operational skills. Less than half of seventh graders are fluent in math facts to the degree that recall is automatic. Stamina, in part, is the skillful allocation of resources. Knowing 6 x 7 is not enough; students must know it to the degree of automaticity that 42 is applied to the equation without conscious effort. Stamina.
If we are to reach the global competitiveness that drives STEM, we must, as Papert (2013) states, focus on the one “competitive skill”: the ability to learn. Our students will not be asked to give the right answer to questions about existing knowledge as much as they will be asked to respond to unfamiliar tasks. Successful students use existing knowledge to ask the right questions. Think again of the egg drop and the balance-ball chair. What if it weren’t an egg but a safety device for a car? What have you learned about dropping an egg that will help you ask the right questions about a better child-seat design?
Ask your students what types of challenges in science, technology, engineering, and math they think they will be called upon to resolve within the next five to ten years. Share their thoughts, and how you might lead them to success, in the comments below.
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Heitin, L. (2015). When did science education become STEM? Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2015/04/when_did_science_education_become_STEM.html.
Drew, C. (2011). Why science majors change their minds (It’s just so darn hard). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/education/edlife/why-science-majors-change-their-mind-its-just-so-darn-hard.html?_r=0
NASA (2013) http://history.nasa.gov/moondec.html.
US-Statlite (2013) http://www.us-satellite.net/STEMblog/?p=31.
Papert, S. (2000). Child-Power: Keys to the new learning of the digital century. Retrieved from http://www.papert.org/articles/Childpower.html.
Powell, A. (2007). How Sputnik changed U.S. education. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/10/how-sputnik-changed-u-s-education.