STEM is not the new garlic

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STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. We are creating curricula and charter schools around the idea that academic studies in these areas will save America’s students. STEM is no silver cross that will ward off all the vampires of unemployment and underemployment, however, and we need to be careful that our STEM focus does not become another well-meaning, expensive set of programs that produce relatively little bang for the buck.

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Eduhonesty: In the end, studying engineering will prove vastly more useful to most college students than studying archeology. But as we move towards a STEM-oriented curriculum, we need to remember that students learn best when presented with material one step above where they are currently operating. Handing everyone harder algebra books at a younger age will only produce more innumerate, confused and angry students. After years of watching No Child Left Behind and after serving on a math curriculum committee chosen to select  my district’s math books, I know that desperate districts may pass out those algebra books without regard to student learning levels. I’ve seen versions of this scenario too often now.

Great ideas can be wrecked by faulty execution. Great ideas don’t work for everyone. Great ideas don’t always fulfill their purpose for that matter: Ask the many thousands of STEM graduates who just lost their jobs at Microsoft.

I support pushing the STEM agenda at our students. The fact that foreign students are now dominating many college programs in STEM areas should be a wake-up call. But if STEM becomes just another acronym, another buzzword in a frantic push without focus on individual student needs, those foreign students will continue to fill up our universities.

We have to fix test-driven curricula before we will be able to make any STEM- orientation a reality. How do I know this? I am going to be given a book next year that my math students cannot read, a book that is years ahead of most of their actual learning levels. I know from experience that an unreadable book might as well be no book. I’ll be scrounging lessons off the internet as I work around a mostly useless book. Consequently, my students will not be moving closer to a STEM career. More likely, they will be getting ready to drop out of high school.

Question for the day: Why don’t we look at those countries whose students are filling the halls of our universities and find out how the educational systems in their countries work? Why don’t we emulate China? Why not let teachers teach students in a more rational order, allowing students to retain new knowledge by putting that knowledge in context? Instead, we are handing them “rigorous” books that might as well be wreaths of garlic for all the help those books will provide them in this technological age.

(My apologies to those districts who are doing a great job of preparing students for STEM careers. Many students near where I live are going off to top universities to study science, technology, math and engineering. We still do a great job in many zip codes anyway.)