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REINVIGORATING THE STEM CLASSROOM

Reinvigorating the STEM Classroom
REINVIGORATING THE STEM CLASSROOM
By John Freeman Posted:April 21, 2014 0 Comments
New articles come out every week lamenting the current state of STEM education in the United States. Recent international tests placed over two dozen countries ahead of the United States in both math and science education. Further, with Congress gearing up for another round of elections and partisan gridlock blocking even simple legislation, many fear that a policy solution to the coming STEM crisis will be unworkable in the near future. Despite the rising importance of STEM subjects in the workforce and everyday life, schools still have a hard time attracting student interest in these subjects. Students' interests evaporate exponentially over time, leading to far fewer than needed pursuing higher education degrees in STEM subjects or seeking STEM jobs after graduation.

One of the reasons behind this perennial shortfall is not what students are learning but how they are learning it. Perhaps the problem lies in the classroom and not the curriculum. Much of the math and science that students are exposed to is taught in the same way that it was 50 years ago. Sure, there is probably more technology being used, but lectures and guided examples have long been the standard by which students have been educated. This auditory style of learning is the preferred learning style of only 10 percent of students. This leaves the vast number behind in advanced concepts. As students begin to feel lost, overwhelmed or confused, their interests wane. They start to internalize the belief that STEM and STEM education is not for them.

Some classrooms are trying to change this rote style of learning by using more innovative practices. Albany Senior High School in Auckland, New Zealand has three classes going on in a space. Students are allowed to enter and exit classes at will, allowing them to decide how best to synthesize the information that is being presented. Other schools, like Skipton Girls School in Yorkshire, England, are synthesizing diverse subjects into a single classroom. One class combines music and physics, which allows students to see how these subjects intersect and correlate. For numerous years in the United States, schools have emphasized adding writing components into non-language classes in an effort to increase the writing skills and overall fluency of students. In the same way, STEM subjects can be incorporated into existing curriculum, changing the way that the classroom functions based on new styles of content being introduced.

The changes above may sound extreme, but that does not mean that they do not have takeaways that can be used in classrooms throughout the country. STEM education needs to embrace more hands-on learning as students explore and master concepts independently with assistance from peers and their teachers. Further, students could be encouraged to work in groups and to synthesize their learning to foster conversations and connections related to each student's ongoing STEM education. However, these changes will not come free. In order to make these classroom changes, schools are going to need better trained teachers, more space and smaller class sizes so that each student receives the attention he or she deserves. Lectures have been the prevailing model for so long because they are inexpensive and relatively easy to produce, but just because something is cheap and easy does not make it the best choice for today's students. Change is needed to ensure that each student receives a proper STEM education inside the classroom.

Innovation in the classroom is not an instance of change being heralded for its own sake. Instead, it is an opportunity for students to unite different fields so that learning becomes cohesive instead of soloed off. The future workforce will not just need workers who have mastered STEM subjects. They will need those STEM workers to know how to communicate their ideas effectively. They will expect them to be able to gauge the practical value of discoveries and insights. They will also require them to exercise creativity to overcome limitations. Take just one current STEM leader: Apple. The iPhone is a genre leading device that truly is a marvel of science, technology, engineering and math. But it is also a beautifully designed and aesthetically pleasing device that works well in a consumer's life. This quintessential STEM-driven device encompasses art, design, communications, psychology and numerous other fields that have applications within STEM.

Few students are interested in only one thing. Instead, they have varied interests that culminate together into unique individuals. Education has long only taught one aspect of the student at a time. But if tomorrow's STEM students are meant to be workers who can fully integrate diverse subjects, then it stands to reason that today's STEM classrooms should meet those needs. By allowing classrooms the flexibility to meet the changing needs of the STEM workforce, students will be better prepared to enter the modern economy; further, this might also help students stay interested in STEM subjects, providing dividends that help deal with the worker shortfall issue that plague many STEM fields. Change in the classroom is not the only thing needed for STEM education to work, but it is a necessary step in preparing students for the future.

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