November 3, 2013

Maine Voices: We must rethink how STEM is taught

Our current economic and workforce realities should inform K-12 education.

DAMARISCOTTA — The important role science, technology, engineering and mathematics education has in catalyzing state economies and workforce readiness is generally recognized and certainly well documented. However, a critical piece of this message has gone missing: K-12 STEM education itself is overdue for a rethink.

Tania Li Chen, a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine, works in the laboratory in this 2009 file photo.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

about the author

Dr. Jean Moon is the principal and founder of Tidemark Institute, which is dedicated to improving education especially in the sciences.

Skills now necessary in manufacturing and the professions, new technical roles, high-tech product demands and new manufacturing technologies call for new STEM-based learning outcomes, increased STEM subject integration and diverse uses of technology that are largely absent in most STEM school subjects.

A related concern is the well-documented gap between how school STEM is learned and how STEM workers carry out their work in the everyday realities of their jobs.

Students may be graduating with the requisite clumps of subject knowledge mastered and formulas committed to memory, yet have little insight into how science, technology, engineering and mathematics come together to advance our quality of life, economic livelihood, responses to climate disruptions. What exactly can be done to close this gap, to align school STEM and STEM in the workforce?

First, lessen the content silos. Subjects like chemistry, geometry and biology generally are still taught in isolation. Students and their teachers are not experiencing the powerful new working relationships that bring together multiple disciplines for a common cause.

For example, biologists and mathematicians now work together in bioinformatics, a discipline essential to human and plant genetics. Similarly, applied physicists, chemists, and engineers are collaborating in the field of materials science to create new composite materials such as ceramics and magnetic implant materials. This is the picture of today’s STEM workforce – multiple configurations of scientists, engineers and mathematicians working together, supported in that work by remarkable technologies.

Bringing together core subject matter concepts in productive ways does not necessarily lessen a student’s knowledge of one particular subject – far from it. By being familiar with how concepts in one discipline domain play a role in another, the processes of STEM as a way of knowing, working and thinking become increasingly clear to students.

  Second, put into place schoolwide lab-like or project-based settings.

Connected opportunities for students to apply knowledge in all kinds of contexts, to build models based on their understanding of phenomenon, and to communicate these understandings effectively to peers and teachers has been confirmed repeatedly in research as being key to learning that endures.

  Third, recognize that creative thinking emerges in the doing. Far too little time is given over to applying subject-matter knowledge to reinforce the art of just plain figuring things out. It is time to pivot.

Part of this pivoting process must include connecting knowledge about the abilities embedded in STEM-based occupations with STEM school learning. In a recent column in The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman writes about welding as a STEM job – that is, a job that requires knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math.

So while it is still important to make a good weld, more is being required of today’s welders. They should be competent not only in modern cleaning and brushing techniques; they must also understand metallurgy and gases, pressures and temperatures and mathematical angles. The gist is that high-tech welders must interpret specifications and unique drawings for specialized welds day in and day out.

The really good news is that a pivot to knowledge-building and knowledge application is recognized in more national reports. For example, the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12, now awaiting state adoption in Maine, along with the New Vision for Undergraduate Biology Education, are excellent examples. A thoughtful case is made in each for how to move away from educational goals appropriate for an Industrial Age but not an age of knowledge-building, innovation and complex problem-solving.

Our challenge as parents, as educators, as employers, as policymakers, as individuals who can see our country as it is today, not as it was even a decade or two before, is to reimagine STEM learning informed by our current economic and workforce realities, not the Industrial Age. Through this lens, all the while being guided by the best available research on enduring learning – or what is sometimes called “deep” learning – a re-think of STEM education, perhaps all subject areas, is truly possible.

— Special to the Telegram

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)