Hopefully over the next two years I'll be sharing some amazing stories and photos, from what I know is going to be a life-changing experience.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How to Improve STEM Education

To begin with, one needs to know that STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  It is an acronym used in industry and by educators and policy makers, who in recent years have called for initiatives to increase the presence of STEM subjects in public education.
One metaphor that kept coming up is that of the “leaky STEM pipeline”.  Something that looks a little like this:

Source: NCES Digest of Educational Statistics, Science and Engineering Indicators, 2008.

The idea is that of the whole population of students who start out in public school, only a very small percentage end up graduating and entering a STEM field.  Two presentations that I attended had very different views on how STEM subjects should be treated in schools.

Presentation 1: Beyond Subject ‘Silos” – Looking Sideways
In presenting a paper co-written with Frank Banks, David Barlex of Brunel University in Australia notes that in schools, educational focus looks like this: STEM, while in the real world the focus is more like this: STEM.  The first question he posed was: Do we want/need elementary curriculum to match real-life skill needs?  The second question posed, and the topic of their research, was: Should it be S.T.E.M, where each subject is a separate discipline, or STEM, where integration occurs.

The presenter suggested that subjects should NOT be integrated, which is a different perspective than I am used to hearing.  His rationale for this was that when we try to integrate the subjects, science always “wins”. He said that most often technology isn’t taught, it is just used as “palliative care” for difficult topics in science and math.  He also argued that it’s not possible to teach all disciplines in school, and STEM topics (such as the E – Engineering) shouldn’t be afforded special treatment.  He used the example “we don’t teach doctoring in school, so why would we teach engineering?” (Barlex, 2014) to make his point.

In the end though, he didn’t call for keeping these topics completely and totally separate in their own ‘silos’, but instead suggested that teachers look sideways.  It is important to be aware of what is going on in other subjects, but it is most important to be authentic in the tasks that we assign students and not force integration.

Why does Science ‘win’?
            During our discussions, my classmates and I believe that there are a few reasons for this.  Damien suggested that Science and math are core curriculum subjects, and this makes them valued more by school systems.  Kathryn also pointed out that it’s usually the Science teachers who are expected to do the integrating.  I think Kathryn is bang on – particularly at the elementary and middle school level, the subject taken by students is Science, and the teacher is expected to integrate as much as possible.  However, at the end of the day that outcomes that need to be covered come from the Science curriculum, and that is what teachers are trained in (how many elementary and middle school, and even high school science teachers started out as engineers?)  There is also the general belief that technology and engineering are subtopics of Science.  Barlex made a good point by quoting Fullen (1991) - “educational change depends on what teachers do and think – it’s as simple and complex as that”.  Experts theorizing is one thing, but the reality is that the biggest factor in STEM education are the teachers, in the classrooms, who come from a variety of backgrounds, and all have a unique belief about education.
For me the real take home message for teachers is to respect task authenticity.  Don’t force math into a lesson because you can, do it because it makes sense.  I believe part of the problem is the very high number of outcomes we are supposed to have our students meet.  This leaves very little time to do anything interesting, or tangential, or completely un-related to the curriculum.  Instead of keeping our students from having these experiences, we creatively fit the curriculum in, to justify doing it.  I know I am guilty of that.  It’s time to stop, and just be authentic and let the students learn.

Presentation 2: Integrated STEM Education

Stephen Petrina of the University of British Columbia, and Mark Sanders of Virginia Tech presented a symposium argued that the quality of experiences affect students, and integration provides experiences that separated disciplines and courses cannot (Petrina, Sanders, and Volk, 2014).  Integrated STEM education is for all students, K-12, and requires all aspects of the activity to assess each discipline, and be grade appropriate.  Sanders argued that an integrated approach doesn’t replace traditional, subject specific instruction, but there are topics that can be better explored through an integrated framework.  He used the example of asking students to design a paper airplane that remains aloft for the maximum possible time.  This example, he says, is a really good one because it can be used at many different grade levels, and can have each aspect of STEM be presented, discussed, and assessed at grade-level.  This is really key – it’s only true Integrated STEM if each aspect is grade-level appropriate.  He also went on to say that you could further enhance a project by integrating with other subjects (LA, Social Studies).  Sanders did point out that there has not been a lot of research done to quantify the outcome of Integrated STEM education on ‘plugging the leaks’ of the pipeline, although this is a major topic seen around the conference this year. 

How do we make this practical and feasible?  At the primary level we have generalist teachers who don’t all have a background in STEM, and may not feel comfortable creating and guiding the kinds of projects which actually integrate all STEM subjects.  At the high school level, how do we make this kind of large scale departmental coordination work?

Sanders referred to research showing a drop in STEM interest in Grades 3-6 – where is this research from?  In my experience intermediate kids find STEM really interesting, although they may not be thinking about career options yet.

I found this a really interesting presentation to hear after Barlex’s argument to look sideways, but not integrate.  Part of the problem is the T.  Is technology a discipline in and of itself, or is it just a tool?  There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on this in the STEM community, so it seems to come down to the beliefs on the educators at work.  I wonder if the bigger question is – what is technology?  We seem to forget about all of the non-digital tools that we having been using in everyday life for thousands of years now.  

Examples of STEM Initiatives


Barlex, D.  (2014, July).  Beyond the subject silos in STEM – The case for ‘looking sidewasys’ in the secondary school curriculum.  Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.

Petrina, S., Sanders, M., & Volk, K. (2014, July).  Integrative STEM and the education pipeline.  In S. Petrina (Chair), Integrative STEM and the educational pipeline.  Symposium conducted at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC. 

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