Why Does STEM Learning Have to Be ‘Real World’?

By Liana Loewus — April 02, 2014 1 min read
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For a recent story on STEM hubs, cross-sector collaborations aimed at improving science and math education, I spoke with Mark Lewis, STEM director for the Oregon Education Investment Board, and ended up asking him some sort of basic philosophical questions: Why is there so much emphasis now on making STEM learning mimic the real world? And why don’t we talk about all subjects this way?

In my three short months on the beat, I’ve written words like “real world,” “inquiry-based,” and “authentic” too many times to count. And I guess I’ve just been wondering why this is all so specific to STEM.

Lewis, a former aerospace engineer, teacher, and Peace Corps volunteer, offered what I thought was a compelling answer.

With science, technology, engineering, and math, he said, the gap between what goes on in the classroom and what goes on in the real world is much larger than it is for most other subjects. That is, the skills traditionally learned in language arts class—reading and writing—more closely resemble those used in a professional setting than the skills learned in geometry or biology class.

Consequently, kids have much less of an understanding about what professionals do in STEM than in other careers, said Lewis. “Human-centered issues are being dealt with in our STEM industries. But the perception is [scientists] are locked in a lab somewhere devoid of any contact.”

“We have to help students and youth understand where their pathways are, and what the things are we wrestle with as STEM professionals,” Lewis added. “No scientist sits around and talks about the answers. They talk about the questions.”

This idea that kids don’t know what STEM jobs entail continually surfaces in my reporting. A recent ACT study found that many students who said they were interested in pursuing a science or math career did not show a preference for STEM-type tasks—meaning they probably didn’t know what people in STEM careers actually do.

Readers, I’d like to hear from you: Do you agree with Lewis’ assessment of why real-world learning is so critical in STEM subjects? And do you think schools should put more emphasis on inquiry and authenticity in other subjects? Or are those already authentic enough?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.