We must separate fact from fiction in STEM education

With Earth Day and the Atlanta March for Science tomorrow, a GSU administrator and researcher says science and scientific research are critical and worth defending. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

In this piece, Cobb resident John Morris discusses the focus on STEM in schools today. Morris received his B.S. in electrical engineering and M.S. in computer science from Texas A&M.  He also received a M.A. in science, technology, and public policy from George Washington University.

He has spent the last 18 years designing and developing software for the retail industry, most recently as a member of a research and development team responsible for demonstrating new technologies and constructing cutting edge retail applications.  Morris has been a resident of North Cobb since 1992.

By John Morris

There is a great deal of concern schools are not doing enough to prepare our children to navigate a future that is dominated by technology. To address that concern, districts across the country are turning their attention to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, working diligently to add more STEM courses and more rigor.

Unfortunately, many of these efforts are based on  myths. Of these myths, four are common. The first is that the science and math that underpins today’s society is different from what it was just a few years ago. It is natural to assume science and math now are different because so much has changed, but that assumption would be wrong.

Granted, the variety of STEM degrees has increased, but they all begin assuming a general education with an emphasis on science and math. The science and math fundamentals, however, have not been changing.

For example, Euclid’s Elements (about 2300 years old) is the basis of modern geometry. Modern calculus was developed in the 17th century by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. The modern theory of the atom was developed much more recently, in the 1920s and 30s. Much of the same can be said when it comes to chemistry and physics fundamentals. We should not confuse the fact the tools with which we teach may need to change with the fact that who we teach, how much time we have to teach, and what we teach are not changing.

The second myth is that anyone can be an engineer programmer. The STEM education rhetoric has an underlying theme that everyone should aspire to be and can be an engineer or programmer. Not everyone is destined to be an engineer or programmer, no more than everyone is destined to be a poet, an artist, or a professional athlete. No amount of wishing can make it so.

Just as not everyone can work in a STEM discipline, not everyone can teach STEM disciplines. Our new commitment to STEM education is at odds with the teaching staffs at most schools, staffs not well suited to achieving new STEM goals. That’s led to more myth making. For example, the U.S. Department of Education claims disciplines such as English, history, and civics can provide a solid foundation for teaching computer science concepts.

The notion that English provides a solid foundation for teaching computer science is no less ludicrous than believing a computer science degree provides a solid foundation for teaching English. In the end, such ideas betray not only a mind-numbing ignorance of the discipline of computer science, but also a dangerous arrogance that reduces STEM skills to something that can be mastered in a moment and its practitioners to a little more than a commodity.

Finally, the myth that STEM is paramount leads to undervaluing other disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, and so on — the soft sciences.  Ultimately, the best of what we create is  a melding of art and science (e.g., consider a good web site, part art, part psychology, part science, part engineering).  So, those who would trivialize the contributions of anything that is not STEM to technological advancement are ill-informed.

So what then must we do? First invest our time and effort in teaching the fundamentals, remembering that a high school is not a university and offers a limited curriculum — is short, focus, expect rigor, excel. Students well grounded in the fundamentals will be well prepared for college as well as a world dominated by technology.

Second, invest in informal education opportunities such as robotics, which is multi-disciplinary and has a number of vocational aspects. Informal education of this type allows one to leverage local problems, skills, colleges, and industries (e.g., applying robotics in an agricultural setting). Informal, project-oriented, education also provides students with the opportunity to build team skills and acquire years of practical experience.

Third, always satisfy the demand for the courses offered; no student should ever be told a class is full.

Fourth, encourage and foster high aspirations. For example, a student with remedial math skills as a freshmen, given sufficient motivation, tenacity, and aptitude should be able to take AP Calculus as a senior and do well — a block schedule offers a lot of opportunity for students to catch up if they have fallen behind.

Fifth, invest in tools, technologies, and practices that will extend the reach and productivity of the teacher.  The classroom teacher is the most versatile and capable resource in the education establishment, but he or she only has so much time and the impact of that time is diluted by practices and tools that by today’s standards seem antiquated.

Finally, all must recognize that education cannot be improved by alienating the profession that carries it out. Even so, performance evaluations are a given. Teaching, like any other profession, is apt to have among its number some that are mediocre at best, some even incompetent. Hiring mistakes are made. Failing to recognize and anticipate that some teachers will not meet expectations comes at a high price. A child goes to kindergarten once, only once.

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

35 comments
DTDUGA1975
DTDUGA1975

My son is a 2015 Mathematics (Actuarial Option) graduate of Auburn University's College of Science and Mathematics (COSAM).  He's decided to teach (I'm currently in my 41st year in a high school classroom), even though his mom (she's in her 29th year as a special needs teacher - took off 11 years to be with our kids in their early years) and I have tried to get him to use his degree as an actuary - no luck!  He's exactly the kind of person a STEM school should hire (an actual math major).  Hopefully, he'll find a job soon for the fall.

redweather
redweather

@DTDUGA1975 He should thoroughly investigate the schools systems he is applying to because they are not all the same.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

@DTDUGA1975 Don't worry too much - I know several actuaries who started out as high school math teachers and then switched after they figured out what time it was.

BurroughstonBroch
BurroughstonBroch

The author omitted an important part of his fifth point - a sea change in how classroom teachers are trained.

The most learned college/university STEM graduates do not earn education degrees and won't be going into public school classrooms. UGA's College of Education offers Bachelor's degrees in Mathematics Education and Science Education but offers no degrees in Technology or Engineering. UGA's College of Engineering (similar to Tech) prepares graduates for "...professional licensure, certification, or pursuit of a graduate degree", not classroom teaching.

23Kevin
23Kevin

I am a physician and I have been deeply involved in middle and high school curricula since home schooling two kids from 98-2005 or so. This article is appalling inaccurate dogma and needs to be rebutted. For example, medical schools routinely accept students with liberal arts or "soft science" backgrounds to use Mr. Morris terms and these students perform quite well academically and more importantly, add a broader perspective to the care of patients.

And while math may be a fairly stagnant subject, the increase in knowledge related to chemistry, biology, and physics, think nanotechnology, genomics, and molecular biology have vastly changed what it means to be educated in these sciences. And yes, liberal arts can be used to teach computer programming and engineering and I would welcome the chance to rebut Mr. Morris's assertion that this is fiction.

For the sake of the future education of our kids and society, my hope is Mr. Morris public policy influence is limited to occasional AJC commentaries. And for AJC editorial leaders to lead into this article with Mr. Morris's credentials lays the foundation to overly legitamize an article that is more fiction than fact.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@23Kevin Perhaps I am slow to understand, but I think Mr. Morris agrees with you, expressed most especially in his 8th paragraph.

23Kevin
23Kevin

Not really, especially if you read his statement about English. In fact, English and writing are excellent disciplines to use as a basid to teach computer programming. But I also think that the aptitude to learn science is impacted more on how sciences are taught rather than a student's ability, especially when kids r motivated to learn.

JohnGMorris
JohnGMorris

A degree in liberal arts does not preclude one from teaching computer science.  A degree is not a destiny. However, an absence of training (whether self taught or formal) does preclude one from teaching computer science.  There is no free lunch and I, like most parents, expect teachers to do more than just wing it.


But the key point is that it appears that the education establishment is abandoning what it knows how to teach in favor of teaching that for which it is ill prepared without good cause.  So the question is not whether an English teacher can teach computer science, but whether it makes any sense at all to divert an English teacher from teaching English to teaching a STEM course.  It seems like a bad idea to me.


Ultimately, given the explosive growth in knowledge, it seems best to hedge our bets by providing the broadest possible education to our students so that we do not limit their future choices. Moreover, we need to teach students to learn how to acquire new skills and master a new subject outside a classroom setting.  Students need to understand that life long learning is not only possible, but no longer discretionary.  The internet already makes mastering new computer science skills fairly routine.


I don't know whether 23Kevin disagrees with the substance of the article or simply misunderstands it. Perhaps, he merely wishes to say that computer science can be mastered in a week, at most a month, by a suitably motivated individual.



Falcaints
Falcaints

The biggest factor is student drive and desire and that can't be created by the teacher.

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

@Falcaints And yet football coaches "create" that drive and desire in kids every year.


I wonder why teachers cant do the same?  Are they really less capable at motivating young men and women than football coaches?

Looking4truth
Looking4truth

@dcdcdc @Falcaints  No, they are not less capable.  But sports coaches have students who want to be there, while teachers have students who are required to be there.  That accounts for some of the difference. 

jerryeads
jerryeads

Another Bravo. Not everybody can do this stuff, not everybody can teach it, and the "soft" stuff is every bit as important as the "hard" stuff. As Ken Robinson notes (http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity), some people are dancers. And kids are not ADD and forced to become addicted to Ritalin just because they can't sit still.

When I was downtown playing policy analyst, I was fascinated when the STEM craze hit some years ago. We already had a surplus of those folks, back at their parents' homes playing video games. My guess is some of those folks were those who shouldn't have been. Do we need more and better STEM teachers? Likely so. Do we need kids who shouldn't be, being dragged into STEM? Likely not.

Beach Bound2020
Beach Bound2020

Sadly, Mr. Morris' points are too logical, intelligent and the right direction for children for anyone in any power to actually read and take note of them.  I do appreciate a non-teacher who "gets it".  Wish there were many more like him.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

In my opinion, his number one is the most critical.  We can't go for the bling until the fundamentals are MASTERED.  To do less is to cheat the students without the foundations to achieve.


In my experience, the likelihood of point 4 happening is about like snow in May in Valdosta.  You want to believe it is true, but a student who starts off in remedial studies has virtually zero hope of catching up in three years to calculus level.  Impossible? No.  But terribly unlikely.  Should a student be given the opportunity and encouragement to try?  Sure. 


If we were talking about a first grader who was behind in math skills, I would not argue this point.  My younger daughter, who was not behind in first grade but HATED math, ended up taking and passing AP Calc with a 4 her senior year, graduated with dual BS in math and astrophysics, and has a masters in astrophysics.  Yet, as a first grader, she would cry over math (especially estimation.)  How can you account for the change?  She was determined to "best" the subject, and she had good to excellent teachers all the way through school who shared their passion with her.

redweather
redweather

@Wascatlady And yet I can remember my ninth grade algebra class. My grade for the first quarter was a high D. This did not sit well with my dad, and he encouraged me to work harder.  So did my math teacher who doubled as my basketball team coach. The next quarter I raised that D to a high C. By the end of the third quarter, when I had raised my grade to a high B, I was also tutoring some of the other students who were still struggling. At the end of the year I had earned a legitimate A. Like  Mr. Morris says, "given sufficient motivation, tenacity, and aptitude" the sky's the limit. 

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Starik @redweather @Wascatlady

Estimation is an important math skill as it equates to understanding math processes and making sense of the world of numbers without having to do a calculation. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@AvgGeorgian @Starik @redweather @Wascatlady And now it makes sense my (then) little daughter hated it.  She wanted then, as now, to have the exactly correct answer. A little bit off and the space probe misses the planet by a bunch!  

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@redweather @Wascatlady Absolutely. You had all kinds of folks encouraging your natural aptitude.  The average kid who is seriously behind in 9th grade does not have so many "encouragers."  They are more likely to have parents who say, "I wasn't good at math, either."  Or, "That teacher just has it out for you." Or, "You are taking algebra?"

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Starik @AvgGeorgian @redweather @Wascatlady We teach young children to estimate to check their answers to see if they make sense.  If they are adding 42+63 and come up with 1009, estimation of 40+60 would tell them their answer was off.

redweather
redweather

"Finally, all must recognize that education cannot be improved by alienating the profession that carries it out. Even so, performance evaluations are a given."

I don't think any teacher can argue with that. The alienation comes in when they are evaluated on things over which they exercise no control. 

redweather
redweather

Excellent appraisal of just about everything related to education.

Legong
Legong

Well said, Mr. Morris. And if parents were empowered to choose the schools which best meet their child's needs we'd already be a long way toward improving education outcomes.

But here come the vested interests to sabotage that dream: teachers who should never have been, greedy teachers' union bosses, a Democrat Party dependent on union dues -- and journalists with an agenda matching that of all three.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@Legong I hope your kids have more drive and intelligence than you.  Stop waiting for the rest of us to educated your children.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Legong @Here's_to_Blue

EduLegong is so happy to have someone new to provide scrumptious hobbits for consumption. Stay out of the sunlight - you know it can turn you to stone.

Starik
Starik

@Legong @JBBrown1968 Spellcheck wont help, ''educated'' is "educate" with an extra "d,"  That makes the error a typo (likely).  Strike one!

Here's_to_Blue
Here's_to_Blue

@Legong First, as pointed out on various AJC blogs to people who make your same comment, there is no teacher's union in Georgia.  Second, the name of the political party you apparently don't like is Democratic -- with the "ic" at the end -- Party, and referring to it as "Democrat Party" is childish.  Third, I suspect that much of the support for school choice is a push by "vested interests" to totally disband public education in favor of for-profit schools.

SaulK
SaulK

Some excellent points---unfortunately, legislators and state / local education officials do not base decisions on logic, reason, and reality.