STEM programmes and flashy subscriptions are not necessary to drive STEM education
When you think of the acronym ‘STEM’ or, to be more specific, when you think of STEM education in practice, what are you actually imagining? Be honest, now.
Allow your mental landscape to fill up with robots, online games or a slick subscription service packed with apps that promise a complete transformation of students into budding tech industry gurus or ‘STEMers’.
If your mental map is filled with smartphones and coding apps, you’re not alone, and you’re also not wrong to be intimidated by what looks like quite an expensive and complicated approach to put into practice.
But here’s the thing: truly sustainable and meaningful STEM initiatives are multidimensional and include all aspects of STEM, not just the shiniest bells and whistles that our current technology can make available.
A real commitment to STEM is less about a certain product or approach but rather, it’s a dedication to truly valuing the liberal arts and sciences, which, of course, includes the life sciences as well as robust critical-thinking skills. And the real kicker? These are the kind of educational experiences that talented teachers have been engaging their students in already for decades now.
So, how can boots-on-the-ground educators sort out the tools that will help them leverage their existing materials and pedagogy to make their STEM offerings truly effective and meaningful to students?
For starters, we might first take a look at where the current influence on STEM programming originates, and take some time to reframe what STEM education can really look like in practice, in all classrooms, and for all students, not just the privileged few.
The pipeline pressure
In a 2015 piece on the changing landscape of STEM education, dean of Georgia Tech, Gary S May, reiterates the common opinion that the foundation of current STEM initiatives is born out of a commitment to creating a “larger, more skilled workforce in STEM areas … [by] preparing and encouraging more youth to pursue these fields at a time when they were less inclined to do so, and to provide more support and training for teachers in the subjects”.
May makes clear his belief in this strategy, and warns against potentially “watering down” the focus on the four STEM subject areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to include the arts and other less ‘hard’ STEM subjects.
While his point is well made, May does not address one of the most concerning factors influencing modern STEM education efforts, which is the tremendous external pressures that the financial industry, technology sector and NGOs are beginning to play, ostensibly altering its future.
Heidi J Stevenson, writing in the journal Issues in Teacher Education, notes that in addition to increased federal funding to public schools, US “venture capitalists have responded to political appeals and are investing 80pc more in STEM education than in 2005”.
Stevenson goes on to ask an important question, and one that we should all be considering when assessing our curriculum planning and materials: “Are these STEM-aiding entities’ motives purely altruistic or profit-driven?”
When we look at efforts from industry attempting to help boost STEM education efforts to fuel the talent pipeline, some additional concerns also emerge.
A thorough 2015 piece in TechCrunch examines some of the takeaways regarding gender discrimination in both tech and venture capital fields.
The lack of diversity is often cited as a primary motivator for fuelling STEM educational programmes aimed at recruiting more women and students of colour into the STEM pipeline but this piece makes clear that one of the key barriers to more inclusive workplaces is the reality that “the lack of diversity in venture capital boardrooms is far more than a STEM pipeline issue”.
Providing flashy STEM education products to educators with the goal of training and recruiting underrepresented students sounds great at first glance. But if the tech sector doesn’t actually address the persistent top-down issues that create barriers for those students once they are actual applicants, then this approach is sorely misguided.
Mindset shift v ‘magic wand’
Increased financial resources for students and schools are always welcome but when it comes to STEM initiatives, it’s important to take a critical stance when off-the-shelf programmes are sold too aggressively as a kind of pricey ‘magic wand’.
Experienced educators know that the real foundation of STEM education requires critical-thinking skills, hands-on engagement, and opportunities to explore the natural world through trial and error, research and reflection, and genuine interest and curiosity in the problems — and potential solutions — of our shared planet.
When pedagogical materials come directly from companies whose sole focus is building up their workforce, and potentially their bottom line, it’s unclear if their commitment to true learning comes before their profit margin.
Audrey Watters of Hack Education explores this question in a 2015 blogpost, and she sums up many of the concerns of venture capital funding for STEM initiatives thusly: “So, when we ask, ‘Who’s investing in edtech?’, we can’t simply look at the dollar flow for our answer.
“We need to pause and consider why this narrative casts innovation as something that happens outside of education institutions … why it’s focused on venture capital, for example, and why it’s focused on start-ups and not schools.”
A more sustainable approach to STEM education should obviously happen within our schools, and should rely on robust training for educators who are looking to add to their already diverse set of pedagogical skills.
In addition, students should be given real opportunities to engage in hands-on activities that require knowledge and application of skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and not just plopped in front of the latest software.
Today’s entrepreneurs and corporations have the power to create beautiful, engaging programmes, but when it comes to building a sustainable grassroots movement designed to reach all students in schools globally, encouraging them to become stronger critical-thinkers and problem-solvers, there’s most likely never going to be an app or kit for that.
This article was originally featured in Silicon Republic on November 6th, 2017.