by Todd Wold
For several years now, our nation has struggled with producing enough students for the STEM workforce today and the future yet-to-exist STEM jobs of tomorrow. We talk at students, ask them to do what we ask, sit in chairs and rows, and read a text, then wonder why they do not know how to think critically, problem-solve, innovate, or collaborate.
Public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, private schools, home schools, online schools, and un-schools, as well as their surrounding communities and industries have all taken an expansive range of approaches in attempt to solve this growing STEM-workforce gap in America. They have tried STEM-awareness, STEM-education, STEM-equity, and allocating numerous resources aimed at improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. They have tried turning STEM into STEAM, or STEAMED, and even ScTEM. All though increased focus, awareness, equity, resources, and access are all helpful, often they are not first fixing the “root” of the STEM problem... pun intended.
Rethinking the Purpose of STEM
What is the purpose of requiring that students learn science and math? Is it so they can name the bones in the body, memorize the periodic table, or cite Newton’s three laws of motion? Is it so that students can recite how to find the midpoint of a line or factor a quadratic equation? Or is the purpose really about learning how to access information that can simply be googled, applying it to the real world, then being able to communicate how and why they applied it?
We don’t have a “students are too lazy to learn this” problem. We don’t have a “students in other countries are smarter than ours” problem. We don’t even have a “students don’t enter kindergarten prepared, or students don’t enter middle school prepared, or students don’t enter high school prepared, or students don’t enter college or the workforce prepared” problem. We have a students don’t see the relevance problem. How can students see relevance in their learning when we continue to “cover the material” by “teaching” them facts they can access on Google or skills with no purposeful application?
How do we produce enough STEM students for the workforce today and the yet-to-exist careers of tomorrow? We need to first get to the root of our STEM problem. Before we solve the STEM-awareness, STEM-education, STEM-equity, STEM-access, and STEM-resources problems, we must first re-define what STEM really is. We should teach students how to think like a scientist, rather than memorize scientific facts. We should use technology while learning and accessing information, rather than solely to present and communicate after “learning” has happened. We must define what it is to have the approach and mindset of an engineer. And we should see mathematics as a process of thinking, evaluating, and communicating observations of the world around us.
STEM Students Prepared
Education needs a systemic overhaul that celebrates schools and districts when they make the shift toward seeing STEM as I’ve described it above. And needless to say on this blog, Project Based Learning is the teaching method that can provide students with the kinds of experiences that will make them think like scientists, engineers, and users of applied mathematics.
When students do projects that are relevant to real world applications and challenge them to solve real-world problems, they will become engaged in STEM. When projects give students the space and opportunity to apply their ingenuity, grapple with the process, revise as needed, and ultimately persevere through the process, they will even develop STEM-grit! STEM-grit is essential in healing the root of STEM.
Students who learn STEM in this way will be better prepared to pursue life choices they envision for themselves. Even if what they choose is not directly STEM related, students will be prepared to branch out to careers that they aren’t even aware of yet, because they have the critical thinking, problem-solving, innovation, collaboration, task-management, and technological literacy skills needed to succeed.
Do you have questions or comments about STEM? Please enter them below.