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by Todd Wold
National Faculty

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May 26, 2016
Healing the Root of STEM

by Todd Wold
National Faculty

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.


  • Great article on STEM.  What are your thoughts on formally introducing STEM through specific curriculum within an early childhood education setting?  (Infant through Pre-K).  I have conducted a survey on Quora and so far the responses of EC educators have been along the lines of “there’s inherent STEM learning in the natural way a child learns and explores.”  I believe that a STEM curriculum is important because you can quantify the results of your plan and ensure that the concepts are being taught specifically and hopefully in a way that engages the child and forms the foundation for improved critical thinking skills…

    sarahsobieski on June 9, 2016 
    [Reply to this comment]
    • Thank you for your dialogue on this Sarah!  It is in these collaborative conversations that we model PBL culture through developing this sort of Community of Practice (CoP). 

      The premise of my argument for how we can “heal the root of STEM” through developing a PBL culture lies in developing a culture of authentic opportunities for learning while doing, rather than learning “just in case”.  I wholeheartedly agree that PBL naturally teaches STEM at all levels, including Pre-K, because PBL is not “one-more-thing”, it is the heart of everything that is authentic, meaningful, rigorous, and real in STEM education. 

      Not only does PBL naturally teach STEM, and I argue STEAM actually, I would also argue that developmental milestones for Pre-K are inherently PBL culture and STEM learning by nature.  I wonder if school hadn’t interfered with student learning at those ages, but had focused on PBL and STEM culture, if older students and adults wouldn’t actually be better learners.  For instance, Play-Based Learning can be a great application of PBL in Pre-K.  Collaboration in group games, exploring adult roles through a scientific mind, dressing, toileting, and eating independently is self-management….all of which are at the root of PBL.  Grouping in collaborative teams during cooperative play, direct instruction on simple tasks and games such as duck, duck, goose, and developing strategies for problem-solving conflicts are all ways to develop interpersonal intelligence, develop sequential thinking and identify outliers, and build creative thinking and innovation.  Development of age appropriate language and understanding helps use PBL to support literacy and build analytical skills, and telling stories helps develop reflection and revision, while building oral literacy. 

      As I said, Project-Based Learning is the basis for all learning while doing.  STEM & STEAM are approaches to thinking and learning, not a set of facts.  Building this PBL culture and STEM mindset is not only inherent in Pre-K milestones, but are natural fits that we need to ensure we do not “school out of kids”, but rather intentionally support and develop.

      Again, thank you for the dialogue.  I look forward to continuing the professional CoP!

      Todd M. Wold, Ed.D. on June 18, 2016 
      [Reply to this comment]
  • Thanks Todd.  I agree.  “We have a students don’t see the relevance problem.”  We need to continue to work to make learning relevant and provide students with opportunities that they have ownership of.  The relevance of STEM education and PBL is crucial.

    I’ve been pondering a question asked of me recently:  How do elementary educators create a PBL learning environment when students are beginning/learning to read.  What does it look like?

    I’ve been reading BIE publications and am gathering more understanding, but appreciate your input as well.

    @scienceisforall on July 12, 2016 
    [Reply to this comment]

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