Classroom Technology Opinion

STEM Is Misunderstood and Misused

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 08, 2013 5 min read
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It seems that elections at all levels bring education into the foray of politics and politicians. It is now happening in the NYC mayoral race. In the race for Mayor of New York City, all of the candidates are running “better schools” up the flagpole to entice voters to choose them. Christine Quinn, one of those candidates, has proposed opening five STEM based middle schools for girls. Matthew Lynch’s August 30th blog post commented on Quinn’s approach to single sex STEM schools, designed to influence girls to enter fields where they have been typically underrepresented. Is this what is wrong with education, not enough girls are working in STEM career fields? No, but it is one of the systemic problems.

The low number of girls entering science, technology, engineering, and math fields has been an issue since we sent a man to the moon. Theories abound regarding the reasons this is so. Girls think differently than boys. Girls don’t have role models in these professional fields. Teachers and counselors fail to encourage girls to consider these fields. Employers have not sought females for these jobs until now, when demand is high and applicants are few. The list goes on.

Let’s consider this is problem as part of a larger one. Even in the field, we have a mixed sense of what is needed to prepare our students for the future. More science, technology, engineering, and math, taught in traditional ways, does not a prepared graduate make.

Tony Wagner, was the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. Prior to this, he was the founder and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for more than a decade. In his book, The Global Achievement Gap he lists seven survival skills for the 21st century. Schools that can prepare students to be ‘college and career ready’ will have to embrace these skills and build upon them.

•Critical thinking and problem solving •Collaboration across networks and leading by influence •Agility and adaptability •Initiative and entrepreneurialism •Effective oral and written communication •Accessing and analyzing information •Curiosity and imagination

The partially understood idea of STEM is becoming corrupted by its misuse by politicians and educators alike. Let’s try to save its value before it is pushed aside as another failed attempt at change. It is not just a program change. It actually holds a possibility for systemic educational reform.

We must accept the premise that we have become a global economy. If we still think locally or regionally, an investigation into STEM as reform may seem dismissible. Acceptance of the premise, however, is accompanied by the reality that our children are not competing well against other students within their state and nation, and from around the world. We must accept that the one thing we can count on is nothing is staying the same. Scientists know this. Living systems change. In the global economy, technology has been the accelerator. Everyone thinks they can discuss education because they once went to school and, truthfully, schools have gotten bigger but have not changed all that much. We have become change tinkerers, introducing new programs, implementing common core standards, and responding to new assessments and evaluations processes. Politicians have forced us to tweak our systems and we have forgotten that to be change agents, big changes are sometimes required...and can be advantageous. It is time for a massive change and we should be the ones leading it.

Changes in our world are mostly based on technology. daVinciminimally invasive robotic surgery has changed the way surgeons do their work. The set of the Wagner “Ring” Cycle at the Metropolitan Operawas transformed with the use of technology. The way we interact with information has changed because of technology. These changes are a result of identifying a problem and solving it or having an idea and making it real. In each of these examples, no single person or talent or subject was responsible. Rather, it was the collaborative effort of those involved, be they artists, scientists, or engineers; they were innovators.

The environments we have are bursting with too many programs and too many methods, and not enough time and not enough training. If Christine Quinn creates 5 middle schools for girls to study science, technology, engineering, and math, the girls who leave the fifth grade with limited English, challenged reading skills, fair math skills, and no exposure to technology will likely not enter. But, what if the entire city invested in its elementary schools so all children were given the opportunities to develop those skills and abilities in classes in which subjects were integrated as they are in the real world? What if year after year, the city grew their schools to envelop the dynamism of focused, planned, integrated curriculum, based upon project based learning, in partnership with businesses? Like most urban areas, New York City is replete with them and businesses support the STEM agenda.

It is a step forward that Christine Quinn is talking about STEM. It is also helping to surface the tip of the misunderstanding iceberg. If we consider STEM to be separate from the arts and humanities, then all we are talking about is subject areas. If we are talking about subjects, we aren’t changing anything. This simply invites the debate about which subjects are more important than others. We know this familiar debate; it happens almost annually at difficult budget meetings.

Something special happened to the medical field as doctors and engineers came together and the daVinci system was created. Something special happened to the Metropolitan Opera when artists, technicians, engineers, and builders came together and that unprecedented set was built. Innovation was born of the confluence of talent and expertise in multiple fields. We propose a clearer understanding of why science, technology, engineering, and math are the best foundation upon which the rest of our educational system can be built. The problems we have to solve and the innovations we need for 21rst century learning spring from these fields. But the creativity that is fostered by the arts, and the contextual understandings that come from the humanities are fundamental as well. We need to stop tinkering and reinvent schools that are good for all of our children, that will prepare them to be ‘college and career ready’....truly. We need educational innovators who see STEM as a system reform and can lead us there.

Wagner, Tony (2008). The Global Achievement Gap: Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need - and what we can do about it. New York: Basic Books.

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