The Problem (and possible solution) of STEM Education
by George Hademenos
An article entitled, STEM: Piercing a Very Expensive Fog! was recently brought to my attention that highlighted an issue of significant concern to science teachers and often the subject of frequent discussion among the education and business sectors of communities nationwide. Summarizing the results from ACTs Condition of STEM 2014, author Jon Whitmore highlighted a troubling observation from the 1.8 million high school graduates who took the ACT in 2014. Of the 900,000 students who expressed an interest in STEM-related college majors or careers, only half of those students provided answers on ACT's Interest Inventory (a series of questions that are asked as part of the registration process) consistent with a demonstrated interest in STEM. 1 Whitmore further noted that of the 1.8 million students tested, just 4,424 expressed an interest in teaching math and only 1,115 wanted to teach science. This document adds support to the ever evolving body of research that underscores the lack of adequate STEM preparation of graduating high school students entering college or the workforce.
Talk to any teacher with a vested interest in the education profession about these results and you will most likely hear a resounding chorus of agreement of a problematic deficiency in STEM education that exists in public schools. In fact, some would argue that the deficiency in STEM education is a symptom of an even larger problem of a poorly principled education system that focuses more on assessment testing and teaching to the test as opposed to innovation that fosters critical analysis and reasoning skills.
In any event a problem exists either in the way high school students are learning STEM subjects or the way that teachers are teaching STEM subjects. Acknowledging that the problem exists is the easy part. Proposing a solution to address the problem is a different story. As a 13-year physics teacher, I would like to propose a solution for consideration.
Let me begin by asking a question:
What exactly is needed to inspire, promote, and excel innovation in the STEM classroom?
The answer is... computers and laptops for every student in the classroom. No, it is instructional technology for every teacher at a campus such as an interactive whiteboard, document projector! and laser printer. Wrong again, it has to be money for classroom supplies, books, educational & technology software, and frequent field trips. One could easily make the argument that each one individually and certainly all of them collectively would significantly enhance if not immediately propel the nation's educational system to exemplary status. However, it turns out that none of these - either individually or collectively - are the answer to innovation.
While it is true that each play an important if not vital role in innovation, they are simply tools - tools that can either lie on a shelf collecting dust or be utilized to develop the most novel and creative learning experiences. The true potential of these tools depends not on their identity, utility or quantity but rather on their user - the teacher. It is the teacher that decides whether these tools are stored in a garden shed or used to cultivate a garden of illuminated learners. It is the teacher that must take the initiative and invest time, patience, knowledge! experience, and creativity to learn what the potential of these tools are, how to efficiently operate these tools, and most importantly, how to effectively implement these tools into classroom instruction.
Does each teacher play a role in fostering innovation and, if so, what responsibility does each teacher bear?
The answer is... yes and the explanation has more to do with how rather than what. As a teacher stands before his/her students to introduce a unit, they are confronted with a dilemma. The dilemma typically has nothing to do with what is taught. They have carefully outlined the content in a unit/lesson plan that details the major concepts to be presented as well as the PowerPoint presentation, handouts of notes/resource materials, corresponding real-life examples in nature, conceptual demonstrations, hands-on activities, laboratory experiments, class assignments, and various assessments.
The dilemma rather has to do with how it is taught. How the material is taught is a critical decision and could make a significant difference as to whether the students are engaged and learning or are disengaged and tuned out. How a lesson is taught should be closely aligned and directly correlated with how students not just learn but are able to understand. There needs to be an established connection - a conduit of knowledge transfer if you will - between the teacher and students. That established connection involves something that any teacher can do, does not require neither a cent to purchase nor a con¬tract to fulfill, and serves to be the most effective instructional approach regardless of student back-ground, experiences, abilities, and learning style inquiry. Yes, the simple question. It is the question posed by the teacher and, with the help of the aforementioned tools, answered by the students. It is also the question posed by the students and, with the help of the aforementioned tools, answered by the students.
The answer is ... yes. Innovation is rooted not in the amount of money, technology, or computers in the classroom but rather in the fundamental desire and inherent ability of each individual child to ex-press his/her natural curiosity through questions. Not just questions posed by the child but also the child's ability to seek an answer to a question and then, based on the answer, to formulate new questions to be asked ... and answered. The question underscores the difference between learning and understanding. Learning comes about when a child answers a question; understanding comes about when a child questions an answer - two processes that are mutually exclusive yet intricately related. It is this cyclical process of learning and understanding that lays the framework and the foundation for critical thinking and reasoning skills - skills directly related and strongly linked to innovation.
Each discipline in nature is built upon curiosity and the desire to understand a concept observation, or phenomenon. With curiosity and the quest for knowledge comes the natural response of asking a question. The answer to a question leads to another question seeking an answer and so begins the cyclical and continuing process of acquiring knowledge. The proof of the benefit of inquiry can be found within the entire body of scholarly journals housed in libraries. Each journal article describes an experiment or a series of observations that were conducted in direct response to a question. In most instances, the response stimulates more questions that must be addressed before the concept being studied can be fully understood. Whether it was the invention of the transistor that led to the calculator and the radio or the discovery of aspirin which was shown not only to be an effective pain reliever but also a fever reducer, anti inflammatory drug and an effective agent in reducing the risk of heart attacks and stroke, these inventions/discoveries would not have occurred were it not for the continual process of asking and answering questions. This is the whole premise behind inquiry-based strategies and, if properly implemented into each classroom, would represent a significant improvement in the state of STEM education. Allowing each child the freedom and comfort level to ask questions and engage in a constructive classroom dialogue with the teacher as well as their peers will lead to a more productive, more vested, and more innovative citizen.
What will it take for each teacher to acknowledge and implement inquiry into their classroom?
The answer is... a fundamental paradigm shift in the development of teachers. Teacher preparatory programs must invoke, encourage, model, and actively promote a transition from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom. Just as every student comes to the classroom with different backgrounds, learning experiences, and learning styles, the teacher also comes to the classroom with different backgrounds, teaching experiences, and teaching styles Inquiry-based strategies provide the bridge between these differences and require teacher preparatory programs to teach them, prospective teachers to embrace them/ current teachers to implement them, school districts to support them, and principals to require them.