STEM EDUCATION: WHEN OR HOW?
One suggestion that some STEM-education advocates are pushing for is to make computer science training compulsory at a young age. Ashley Gavin of Girls Who Code has recommended adding computer science as a compulsory part of each student's education, beginning in elementary school. The rationale behind this is two-fold. First, it ensures that all students have equal access to computer science education, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Second, it ensures that students receive the necessary education regardless of their interest in the subject. In the same way that reading and math are compulsory subjects, which provide foundational building blocks for surviving in later education and careers, activists claim that this will provide students with much needed skills while also inspiring an ongoing passion for the subject. This, in turn, may increase the total number of students interested in STEM subjects, leading to a parallel increase in the number of qualified workers available in the STEM workforce.
However, this method may have only limited success. While it is true that increasing the amount of exposure to computer science in early grades will increase the overall amount of base knowledge students have, it is doubtful whether this would translate into significantly larger numbers of students pursuing computer science as a career choice. A similar effect cannot be seen among other subjects that are widely compulsory. For instance, mathematics is usually taught from first grade through high school. However, the number of students pursuing higher education in fields related to math and math-related sciences remains vastly under the number needed to sustain the demands of the growing STEM economy. Thus, while computer education in elementary school will probably make students more technology literate, this does not necessarily imply that greater numbers of women, racial minorities, and other underrepresented groups will pursue computer science as a career.
The effectiveness of STEM education cannot be limited to when students are exposed to new STEM subjects; a major component also has to be how students are exposed to this idea. In a recent editorial piece in the Huffington Post, Nijdeka Harry of the Youth for Technology Foundation wrote about how she and her group had successfully used an area Tele-Academy to increase the interest that girls in Nigeria have for STEM subjects. Instead of introducing the material through lectures with only occasional hands-on learning, they focused on adding meaning and narrative to the information they provided. The group noted that many students-especially girls-learn better when subject materials are not just introduced in a more hands-on fashion, but that students express a higher amount of interest and prolonged passion for the subject when the information is woven into a narrative about why the material is important. Thus, when this group started working with girls in Nigeria to introduce STEM concepts, they abandoned the lecture format and focused on something that the students could relate to: information about the prevention, treatment, and spread of breast cancer. By attaching student learning goals to practical activities that had a tangibly positive outcome, students were much more likely to engage with the material in a positive manner. Indeed, in one instance every student in the program said they wanted to be either an engineer or a doctor at the end of the program. Engaging students in a hands-on way from an early age is only part of the STEM education puzzle. Information must also be tangibly useful, and this is most often accomplished by attaching the knowledge to narratives to which students can relate.
The evolving work happening with STEM education does not mean that everything that has come before it is wrong. Lectures have their place, and some students respond well to this style of learning. However, in an environment when policymakers and educators agree that the future workforce will not be prepared for the STEM demands of the economy, overhauling the methods through which students receive such information may help inspire more students from all groups to pursue STEM fields as careers. Through a mixture of earlier STEM engagement, hands-on learning, and an increase in the tangible usefulness of STEM education, educators can continue to make strides forward that help prepare today's students for tomorrow's workforce.