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Spurring STEM Education beyond Textbooks
By John Freeman Posted:March 16, 2014 1 Comments
STEM education may start with textbooks, but it should not end there. As STEM educators continue to comment on the importance of involving students with STEM from a young age, many are working on providing hands-on opportunities for students of all ages. However, it is up to each educator to stay abreast of what is going on in the STEM world when learning moves beyond the typical curriculum and escapes the confines of the textbook. This is so that they can help share these new ideas with their students. One excellent resource is the Interfield resources provided through TED Talks.

For those who are unfamiliar with TED, it is a series of conferences that focus on combining leaders in technology, entertainment, and design in the same room so that their various projects can spread. Their goal focuses on the idea that too often, brilliant ideas get pigeonholed in a single field because interested parties in other fields do not read the journals or trade publications where the idea was published and discussed. Through a series of conferences and online video recordings, TED seeks to spread the ideas of science and technology to all the people of the world. Two of the videos they posted this week had a special focus on technology that could have an important impact on STEM education.

The first talk comes from Manu Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University. In his talk, Prakash unveiled a microscope that he and his team developed that can be created for 50 cents. The microscope is made entirely out of paper, has projection capabilities, is nearly indestructible, and has a diagnostic sensitivity capable of detecting blood pathogens such as malaria and giardiasis.

The story of the development of this microscope is fascinating for two reasons. First, the original idea for the paper microscope was developed by two of the students on his team. This shows that students of all ages can have a place in research, and that STEM education can have a positive effect on the world even before a student's STEM education is complete. More importantly, Prakash showed that the microscope was in final field testing before it was released to the general public. While of course the primary goal of this development is to help combat the spread of untreated disease throughout the developing world, these microscopes could have a very real impact on STEM education within the United States. Too often, those seeking change in education stare wistfully at budgets where there is simply not enough money to provide an effective science education for all students. Though a microscope is only one of the many science tools that a student should encounter during their time in school, think of how much more accessible this tool will become when a working prototype can be had for 50 cents instead of the hundreds of dollars that today's school microscopes typically cost. Each student could have their own, and schools could help cement the growing goal of capturing and maintaining student interest in STEM through early engagement in hands-on learning.

The second talk of interest for STEM education regards an art installation by Gabe Barcia-Colombo. In an installation at several New York City galleries, Barcia-Colombo has placed several vending machines that are filled with vials that hold visible strands of people's DNA. The process through which he acquired the DNA is detailed in the video, and each of the working vending machine allows individuals to purchase vials of DNA that contain pictures of the people the DNA came from. Barcia-Colombo developed the project to jump start conversations about what it means to buy and sell DNA and what this means in a rapidly approaching future that is increasingly reliant on technology.

This project has several implications for STEM education. First, Barcia-Colombo has been able to seamlessly connect a hard science subject like DNA through the accessible means of the arts. Instead of the arts being in conflict with science for limited student time and resources, art can serve as a pathway for deeper engagement and understanding of science. This helps not only increase student engagement with STEM subjects, it also helps create greater buy-ins from school communities where some teachers may be fearful that their subjects will be left behind as school priorities shift. But it also shows another way in which science and technology, which can so often be intangible, can become real to students. Not every demonstration has to be the typical (though still awe-inspiring) robotics displays; instead, science can be as everyday as the very structure that makes each of us who we are.

The reason that these talks and many others like them prove fascinating is that they offer STEM educators and other interested persons the opportunity to see what is going on in the STEM world so that they can pass the wonder on to their students. Students respond best when they are given individual attention, and no two students will ever have the exact same interests. But by staying abreast of the developments in the STEM world, parents and teachers can help students maintain their love of STEM and their interest in continuing education for years to come. While not every new piece of information may be relevant or immediately applicable like a 50 cent microscope, a broader worldview on the part of teachers can only help in broadening the prospects of all of their students.