STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education is something I think about on a daily basis. After all, I currently work as a science curriculum designer and I am a former high school science teacher, with hopes to return to the classroom. I come from a long line of physicists and engineers and I am married to a “techie.” To say that STEM education and reform is a passion of mine would be an understatement.
Yet, the death of Steve Jobs had me reeling over the state of STEM education even more than usual. Mr. Jobs was an innovative tech genius with a entrepreneurial spirit. He transformed the way that we communicate, do business, invent, work, and play. He had a vision and surrounded himself with people who could help see his vision to fruition. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder when we will see someone of his caliber again. Are we preparing our students think critically, ask questions, investigate, take risks, and become innovators? Do we give enough attention to scientists and engineers making huge leaps and bounds in their fields by making their findings accessible and interesting to the public?
STEM education has become more important than ever. In order to stay competitive in the world, we need people to think critically and to be able to make connections between the technological, science, and engineering disciplines. However, STEM education budgets have been slashed and the emphasis on testing has encouraged rote learning. Instead of being able to explain things, students simply want to know the answers. Experiential learning has taken a back-burner to test preparation. In the end, our students are falling further and further behind.
Today, my daughter came home from school and saw my NASA/Georgia Tech homework on the dining room table. It was a motion storyboard with images diagramming the forces acting on a moving object at different points in time. She questioned me about it, always curious to learn, asking me what each of the diagrams meant. So, we did what comes naturally. We experimented with moving objects, testing forces and frictions of various surfaces. I showed her what each of the diagrams and symbols meant along the way. When we were finished, she was able to describe how forces affect moving objects and explain what the force diagrams illustrate.
She is in second grade.
I tell this story not to brag about how brilliant my young daughter is and how I seized a teachable moment. I tell this story to make clear that this could be all children. If you give children the opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math, if you allow them to experiment, explore, and draw conclusions, if you have them develop their own questions and answer them through investigation, children will surprise you. They are much more teachable and far more intelligent than we give them credit. Einstein said, “It should be possible to explain the law of physics to a barmaid.” I am going to expand on that. It should be possible to explain the law of physics to even young children. Much of it is inherent. If we don’t jump on the opportunities when they are presented, our children, and therefore, the innovations of our future suffer.
So where do we go from here? The future of STEM education cannot take place in the vacuum of the classroom. Collaboration between the community, experts, and schools is a necessity. Students should not have access to only one authority on information in the classroom; they should have access to many. Teachers need training and time to implement experiential learning programs like problem based learning. Reform needs to take place on a local level so that teachers are able to utilize local resources.
Our children have the ability to innovators, engineers, scientists, and perhaps even the next Steve Jobs. But without STEM education reform, I fear our students, and therefore all of us, may be robbed of this future.