In general, I applaud the recent initiative launched by Radnor Township parents to launch a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program in their schools, especially on the elementary level.
That U.S. students’ science and math scores consistently lag behind children in other developed nations is by now widely known. Perhaps less well known, but just as important, is the fact that a much smaller percentage of native-born students in U.S. colleges and universities earn engineering degrees, again, compared to their peers in other countries.
Thus, any effort to strengthen the way that our students learn math and science and fundamental principles of engineering is to be applauded. STEM can be seen as the latest iteration of this kind, dating back at least to the Sputnik era of the 1950s, another time when American society was anxious about science and math education.
The Value of STEM
In many ways, the STEM approach mirrors the establishment of language arts curricula, which have been around for several decades now. How many of us remember getting report cards with separate grades for grammar, spelling, reading comprehension, literature, and writing? (And handwriting, but that is a whole different discussion!) At some point, educators realized that children and students are more engaged when they “see the big picture” and understand the interrelatedness of the skills and knowledge they are being taught. Thus was born the “block schedule” with longer periods devoted to teaching reading, writing, and literature in an interdisciplinary, interrelated way.
STEM programs mirror the language arts approach. The integration that STEM emphasizes between and among science, technology, and math, and the real world problem solving and application of skills in those academic areas, results in an “engineering mindset” for the learners.
Good teaching now is much less about “part to whole” learning and more about “whole to part.” How, for example, do adolescents and emerging adolescents learn a new video game? Do they begin by reading its directions, or by practicing just one way to advance to the next level? And more fundamentally, do they even proceed in a linear manner with whatever “task” is called for in their particular game? Instead, they routinely “jump right in” and don’t wait to master one skill before trying another.
Many Paths to a Solution
It is in these ways of encouraging multiple approaches to attack a problem, and of using various skills across different disciplines, that STEM offers the most promise as a way to engage and excite students.
As RadnorPartners4STEM begins its study and deliberations, let me offer them one gentle, cautionary note to “keep your eye on the ball” and remember that STEM, (and ALL curricula, really) is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. In other words, I think we in education sometimes get too focused on finding whatever “magic bullet” is out there and believing it to be a panacea, whether it is a curriculum, or a piece of software or hardware. We occasionally operate in the mistaken belief that what we teach or the tools that we use to teach matter more than the outcomes we are seeking.
Our goal in teaching STEM at Rosemont School of the Holy Child is to develop better problem solving skills among our students, with particular emphasis on using the scientific method and quantitative analysis as the foundation for their subsequent efforts finding creative solutions to knotty, real world problems. As a result, we hope to excite and engage the children by making their learning of skills and acquisition of knowledge – whether in math or science – more meaningful and relevant.
May that be the goal for Radnor Patners4Stem and for educators everywhere.