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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Talking about STEM Education

So STEM Education is great.  Obviously.  We just need how to teach it really well because we need the future generation to be super-STEMers so they can solve the world’s problems.  Right? 

Well, maybe not.  Hidden amongst all of the presentations on how to teach STEM, the debate over whether or not to integrate, the workshops on how to run STEM programs and use various technologies were a few hidden gems that asked us to stop and think for a moment.  IS STEM important?  If so, WHY?  What are the problems with STEM?

David Blades of the University of Victoria teamed up with Matthew Weinstein and Shannon Gleason to present a one-act play that re-frames STEM discourse and considers different possibilities for thinking about STEM.  Firstly, it was really nice to see something other than a powerpoint presentation.  But beyond that, they raised some really interesting questions.  The over-arching question is “What does STEM enable and exclude in school curriculum?”

They suggest that focusing on future technology consumption as the primary reason for including STEM in the curriculum pretty much misses the point.  The current path of STEM Ed only serves corporate interests by misplacing hope that our problems will be solved by future scientists and engineers.  It limits the choices provided to students, promotes national competition to be more techy and really just enable neoliberalism because science is NEVER value-neutral.

Wow, right?

After their presentation we discussed how the presentation was quite one-sided, but it served its purpose of getting us to stop and think.  What is it we want to be teaching the next generation?  They suggested, and I tend to agree, that science education should be about being critical, and asking questions about science, and STEM Ed needs to move beyond content.  Their example of solar-energy lead the discussion to ask if our current ‘solutions’ really are solutions – or do they just allow us to continue to live as we do in a slightly different way.  Does STEM solve the big societal issues?  If so, how?  And if we think the curriculum needs some tweaking to incorporate these bigger issues, how do we make that happen?

Astrid Steele of Nipissing University focused this idea in her presentation and asked these questions – What are students being prepared for?  What are they being inspired for?  STEM in the classroom is fun, but where is the complexity, the ethics, and the big ideas in STEM education?

Possible Moral Frameworks for STEM Ed
- Consequentialism – where you weigh the costs and benefits of a decision
- Deontology – having a set of accepted rules to judge actions by
- Virtue Ethics – this is basically character education which is present in some curriculum already
- Sustainability Ethics – looking at the ethics of being sustainable

She says that STEM needs a moral compass, and there are a few frameworks that we can use in the classroom to help us look at the bigger picture. 

Ontario does have an initiative that involves these bigger issues, called STSE – Science, Technology, Society and the Environment.  I’ve taken a look at it, and it looks good.  At least, it looks better than the currently narrowly-focused curriculum that I’ve been working with in BC.  Perhaps there’s a thing or two in there that I can try out.  But you don’t need a whole curriculum to help you get your students to look at big ideas.  Here’s an example that Astrid gave that I really like.

The usual task:
You’re on a plane that crashes on an island.  You need to build a tower to be able to get the attention of rescuers.  There is an indigenous population present on the island.  What do you do?
How to improve it:
Add one question – how will your presence impact the island?
Something simple like that is good – because we have enough to teach already.

Blades, D., Weinstein, M., Gleason, S.  (2014, July).  Alternative powers: De-framing the STEM discourse.  Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.

Steele, A.  (2014, July).  The tower builders: The need to place ethical considerations at the forefront of STEM and STSE education initiatives.  Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.

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