Wary about STEM
I enjoyed attending last week's National Math Panel Forum in Washington. Like the first forum, the specific objectives of the gathering weren't crystal clear. However, the opportunity to mix with folks representing federal and state policy, the various fields of mathematics, pre- and in-service teacher development, math education, publishing, assessment, research, and more was invigorating and provocative. I felt I learned a lot, and I hope that the efforts to capture collective thinking in targeted breakout sessions lead to valuable recommendations.
However, I did have one nagging concern from the gathering. When representatives of the Obama administration talked about the need for STEM education and incentives to extend it, I got a little nervous. My anxiety is that schools become satisfied with students doing fun projects like building model bridges and designing software games, and they neglect the rigor of the science and math that make the bridges and games work.
I do love STEM. I've created scores of science and math programs that engage students with compelling contexts requiring a deep understanding of the content. We have to make sure, though, not to stop with the context -- the manipulatives, the spreadsheet, the stuff students are doing. Those activities, the Technology and Engineering, are vehicles for engaging with, learning, and applying the Science and Math. Students need to know how and why thinks work so that they can use the concepts in other compelling (and mundane) situations. The National Research Council report -- Taking Science to School -- from a few years ago does a nice job of summarizing how hands-on science often became a fun manipulative experience for students. They looked very engaged, but they typically couldn't explain the science. As we move forward now with math, we need to be cautious that STEM doesn't sTEm.