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STEM Debate is Generating New Ideas and Wider Acceptance
By John Freeman Posted:December 26, 2013 0 Comments
In every major effort to effect change in the world, it seems as if resolving these problems takes a long time and often feels like a lonely battle. The effort to reform STEM education efforts in the United States is no different. Though many policymakers, education leaders, parents, and students now embrace the idea that STEM learning provides a gateway to future job security and financial stability, the larger conversation about STEM has largely been absent from the general public. However, the conversation may be starting fresh in wider circles.

In December 2013, the New York Times published a lengthy editorial titled "Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?" that hoped to bring the issues facing student STEM success to a wider audience. The newspaper followed this up with a spate of letters to the editor and a 10-part discussion of possible STEM reform efforts that involved students, scientists, STEM innovators, video game developers, and authors from a variety of backgrounds. These efforts are a positive step forward in bringing awareness of the potential benefits and current issues surrounding STEM education to the wider public.

The initial editorial called for a series of reforms that have long been on the wish list for many STEM advocates. They call for a more flexible curriculum, early exposure to numbers, more real world experience, and better teacher preparation. In short, students need to be taught more in the STEM subjects (especially computers, engineering, and technology) at their level through real world, applicable learning taught by teachers who are better prepared to help students excel in these subjects. The best STEM environment is not a lecture hall with students taking copious notes while an instructor drones on. Nor is the best environment one where students are endlessly prepped for and then tracked by a mountain of standardized tests. Instead, this editorial calls for students to be better prepared for the real world, no matter where that course might take them.

However, the New York Times' suggestions do not stop there. In the conversation that followed, many STEM education stakeholders weighed in on ways that STEM education could become more engaging and applicable to students' lives. Actress and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik advocated for using Hollywood style storylines in STEM subjects to make problems more engaging. For instance, zombie outbreaks could be models for exponential growth or superheroes could help explore the physics of flight. Or take the suggestion from Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, who advised educators to prove the usefulness that STEM fields have toward shaping and changing the world. This sort of involvement helps to involve female students better, thus decreasing the gender gap in STEM fields.

Alternatively, take video game developer Lisette Titre's advice that video game coding cannot only help students become better exposed to computer science, it can also help teach subjects like geometry and trigonometry where it is notoriously hard to keep students' interests from flagging. These authors and more have tackled the tough problems facing STEM education, and they have added their voices to an expanding and increasingly public conversation on the best ways to reform STEM education to better serve students, and through them, the future economy. This conversation is one that everyone owes to themselves to read and ponder when considering the next steps to be taken in STEM learning reform.

Many people who have long been following the STEM education debate may see the recent Times editorials and wonder how this may affect STEM in the United States. In every reform movement, an important part of success is ensuring that people across the country not only know about the importance of the cause but know why it is an issue worth fighting for.

Even at the dawn of 2014, too many Americans are still ignorant about the skills gap in STEM fields and the projected shortfall in qualified STEM employees that is coming in the future. Articles like these from newspapers of wide circulation not only help to jumpstart the conversation in the general public, it helps to expose those who were entirely unaware of the problem to the issues at stake. Therefore, whether it is a policy leader being exposed to a new idea or a parent discovering something new via a social media share, every person has a stake in the success of STEM education. This success will provide a major building block for future advancement and student success, and it can only be used if society has the information and the political will they need to see that changes are made for the better. When those with a large microphone get involved, things start to move faster.