This is the first article in a multi-part series.
STEM, STEAM, STEAM-D, STREAM, ESTEAM – the variations are many, but shouldn’t the vision be one and the same? Brimming with ever more letters, and bogged down with weighty political and budget baggage, growing curricular acronyms risk becoming more like alphabet soup than a strategy for learning.
Instead of playing scrabble with our educational priorities, we should zoom out beyond the typical frameworks and take stock of what STEM is really capable of enabling. Too often, the conversation around STEM curriculum (and its extended family) focuses on the nuts and bolts integral to those disciplines. Missing from that dialogue is an understanding of STEM as a way of teaching habits of mind and how those habits can be leveraged across the curriculum.
STEM is not necessarily a standpoint to emphasize the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – or at least that’s not the way its application is most effective. Instead, STEM should, like the subjects that give it its name, encourage strategic thinking and curiosity across a multitude of areas. What is it about STEM that is worth teaching to kids and how does that impact their abilities to think critically as well as creatively?
STEM is a problem-focused way of thinking. It teaches students to define and solve questions through tools and iterative processes that enable young minds to tackle complexity. Inherent thinking models within STEM, such as the scientific method, promote pairing logic with creativity to solve problems effectively. This way of thinking should be encouraged outside of science class. No matter what problem a student is facing, using habits of mind gleaned from STEM can help to propel them further. For example, by asking important questions such as: How does it work? How could it be improved? What if? Why not?
Viewing and implementing STEM with a zoomed-out perspective can help place the focus on what matters: the way of thinking. The line between science and mathematics and liberal arts is imaginary – and as such, we should certainly cross it. Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, an associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College, points out the potential of wider pools of knowledge in an article for The Washington Post:
“Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. Leonardo’s curiosity and passion for painting, writing, engineering, and biology helped him triumph in both art and science; his study of anatomy and dissections of corpses enabled his incredible drawings of the human figure.”
STEM also emphasizes an important lesson: with failure comes progress. This habit of mind frees students to tinker, step back, and keep re-tinkering until they find themselves closer to a solution. Experimentation enforces learning and improvement as long-lasting processes, aptly preparing students for “real world” scenarios where answers are often multifaceted. These experiences breed confidence and patience among problem-solving skills. They allow children, regardless of gender, skin color, or socio-economic background to see their own potential and understand that learning isn’t about getting the right answer, it’s about asking the right questions.
The value of STEM is in exposing students to problems and giving them the ability to solve them. By broadening their mindsets, we can help them put learning to use – whether that is by eventually entering the field of science, or by using higher-level thinking to combat socio-economic problems, or something else entirely. Jaime Casap, Chief Education Evangelist at Google, Inc., frames this idea for Education Week:
“We often ask our students, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I do not believe that is the right question. First, all the labor forecasts predict that most jobs of the future haven’t been defined yet. Second, we already have jobs most students wouldn’t recognize, like ‘Bio-Medical Engineer’ or ‘Sustainable Materials Architect.’ Instead of asking our students what they want to be when they grow up, we should ask them what problem they want to solve. We should ask them to think about what knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to solve that problem. We should ask them to think about where they can get the knowledge, skills, and abilities they will need. We should ask them to think about how the problem they want to solve fits into the context of the world.”
STEM asks students to do just that – think bigger and more productively. As schools, teachers, and students are exposed to a plethora of acronym-based initiatives, let’s shift our focus from what students are learning to how students are learning. In other words, instead of adding more letters, let’s consider what STEM really stands for, a theme that the NC STEM Center introduced: Strategies That Engage Minds.
1. “We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.” The Washington Post. February 18 2015.
2. “Jaime Casap Explains Why Global Competence Matters: It’s Not Really a Small World” Education Week. May 18 2015.
3. “Strategies That Engage Minds: Empowering North Carolina’s Economic Future.” NC STEM Center. 2013.