Sunday, July 15, 2012

Defining STEM

Do a Google search to define the word "STEM" and even though the education acronym is gaining popularity, Google will list more "Stem cell" sites then "STEM" sites. However, the acronym "STEM" simply put, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. However, the term is also vague enough that everyone is left to interpret it themselves.  

The acronym itself stands for a vast number of topics. The "S" in STEM stands for science. STEM research in science may include any combination of the following; chemistry, geology, ecology, biology, physics, health, or agriculture. The "T" in STEM stands for technology, which is interpreted differently  depending on who is using it. To some, technology refers to computer technology, computer programming, and computer science. Still others use technology to mean information, communication, transportation, manufacturing, or construction technologies. The "E" is for engineering, which refers to chemical, mechanical, electrical, civil, nuclear, or transportation engineering.  And lastly, the "M" in STEM refers to Mathematics. The "STE" would not be able to function without the "M." Mathematics is the tool by which the other disciplines in STEM accomplish their tasks.

Jonathan Gerlach wrote an article in the NSTA Reports titled, "STEM: Defying a Simple Definition" that compares how educators view STEM with how industry (those who will want to hire employees) view the term.  Until educators and industry are on the same page, its very possible school will (excuse me for the use of this word) continue to be irrelevant to student's lives. 

The term STEM is used by national politicians and is at the center of President Obama's Educate to Innovate campaign. Anyone talking about education reform uses the term STEM. Anyone looking for grant funding knows to include the term STEM. However, just as the saying goes, "There is nothing new under the sun," the term STEM, is seen by some as an attempt to repackage the same old dogma of an desperate government trying to reform its educational system. And in some ways I agree.

The fact is we need critical thinkers and creative yet logical innovators that will provide the economic base for the future of our county. While I support the philosophical need to improve how students perceive and therefore engage in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, doing more of the same is not the answer. The fact is, most of the middle school, high school, and undergraduate courses that fall into this STEM category are focused on learning facts, not on thinking critically or scientifically. As an educator myself, I was guilty of this. I became a science and English teacher because I loved my subjects and wanted others to love it. And on the surface, that seems like a great reason to become a teacher; but I found that I often lacked concrete applications of the facts I was teaching. For example, I loved teaching the structure and function of cell organelles; and expected my students to love it as much as I did, even if I had not provided a real-life connection for ways scientists apply this knowledge on a daily basis. And I believe that many STEM teachers are guilty of the same thing. We teach our students what we have learned, not what we have experienced. As I discuss in my article, What Inquiry is NOT, my fear is, that if students believe that memorization is the biggest component of STEM careers, the misconception may drive creative and innovative students into other fields.         
One part of the answer is allowing students to perform their own research.
I believe one part of the answer is research. Allow students to experience STEM. Although some will argue that  high school students don't have enough background content to ask good questions, and design or conduct experiments, I say "Let them try." Give them direction in how to find answers, provide them guidance in how to design experiments and prototypes that will help them find answers to questions they find interesting.  That is how we can best recruit for the future STEM innovators--let them start now!

The best teaching experience I've ever had as a teacher and as a mom, has been giving up control of the specific content of what kids learn, by allowing them to design, implement, and interpret their own research project. While students learned a large variety of topics, more importantly, they learned how to think critically, solve problems, and find the STEM knowledge they needed to find answers to their questions. Publishing the STEM Student Handbook is my attempt to provide a resource to help teachers facilitate student research so that we may facilitate national change.

What does STEM mean to you in your corner of the world? How is STEM being defined in your education circles?

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