Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Squandering STEM by broadening its appeal

Two days ago, an article appeared in the Science Times STEM series entitled Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit. The article cites the fading, hodgepodge efforts of the companies and nonprofits and private-public partnerships that made up President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative. It also cites the lack of improvement by American students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, last given in 2012. And, finally, it cites the lack of follow-up investigations of what’s happening in classrooms, and the fact that, since “public education is run at the state and local levels… any presidential education initiative is inevitably indirect”.

I’d put the problem differently. As I’ve noted here, here, and here, our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dance, fraction murals, photosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

The thing is, the kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening, as opposed to trivializing of what’s interesting about math and science, probably isn’t the kind of student who ever would persevere through a STEM major.

Meanwhile, the kind of person who potentially would is getting less and less of the training s/he needs to compete with growing number of international peers in college.


Auntie Ann said...

Our school changed its science fair this year from: everyone in grades 5-8 has to do an actual experiment, to: you can do an experiment if you want...or you can make a rube goldberg machine...or some sort of robot...or research some environmental issue...or...something. This year they've also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.

We've always taken the science fair seriously as the only time kids are actually supposed to do a research project and the only serious paper they write all year. Unfortunately, the rubric for the paper calls for only 30 sentences in total (6 5-sentence paragraphs), and kids who did the minimum still got the same grade as our kid, who did the whole research paper experience. It gets a bit discouraging. The kids who did rube goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg. Typical experiments include such favorites as: which type of perfume lasts longer, alcohol or oil based? Our fave: Will there be pesto after the apocalypse? (the kid put basil plants in the oven and in the microwave to see if they could survive.) And the perennial: Do plants grow better when watered?

The favorite experiment we did was the first one, several years ago: if you drop a soda can, how long do you have to wait before you can open it safely? (Answer: after a minute, you're probably in the clear, unless it is a cold 7-Up--you should wait another half minute for that.)

R. Craigen said...

Hi Ann. Brings back memories. When my son was in Grade 4 in a Fresno CA school he asked me if he could do a science fair project about computers. So I taught him binary arithmetic and explained how a half-adder works. We were doing to build an adder out of two linked half-adder arrays, starting from transistors. Turns out it was a bad idea because of a little practical problem my tiny theoretical brain had trouble with: current leakage. Reading about how to solve this I realised I was a bit over my head in the electronics. I was explaining the issue to Chris one afternoon and he lay there obviously not paying much attention and suddenly he said, "Dad, what I really want to know is how a computer remembers stuff..." Brilliant! I explained flip-flops (not the shoes) in a minute, and said, "Let's bypass the current leakage problem and just by an array of NAND logic gates. (Or was it EOR? I forget -- either will do). I demonstrated how to build one, and he built 8 -- thus producing a one-byte memory bank. Then we bought a press-button, an array of 8 toggle-switches, and 8 LED lights. Chris largely wired the rest himself, which we conceived together: the LEDs would display whatever was in the memory array. You could set the toggles to form 8 bits of "input", and then by pressing the button, it is transferred to memory, as shown by the LEDs. You can repeat indefinitely.

Being interested in the project, he did reading of his own and produced a fantastic writeup, and the little talker could explain the project from one end to the other, and I knew he was a shoe-in for top prize.

On the day of competition the morning is spent with kids wandering around looking at each other's displays. His attracted a lot of attention. Since we'd used a friction-grip breadboard, you could wire and rewire it by hand with no special equipment. The older boys went "Cool!" and started playing with the wiring. Chris patiently rewired it so it would work again three times in the morning. Then when they reconvened for judging in the afternoon, he realised to his horror that someone had been playing with the wiring over lunch hour and it was completely disfunctional. With judges on top of him he explained how it WOULD work if it were wired properly.

He got a silver ribbon. Oh well.

The kid who won top prize and went on to divisionals was a Grade 7 student who had made a working hovercraft out of a leaf blower.

lgm said...

I wish I had this problem. My district, unlike every district arround it, including Title 1 districts, doesn't bother with anything nonrequired. Science Fair? We don't participate inthe County League. Math Club? We don't participate in the area League. AP Chem? Nope. AP Physics? Nope. Statistics? Nope. We don't have any classes or clubs to put the interested kids into, much less the disinterested. And that is why I am against local control.

Anonymous said...

lgm: Local control does have its drawbacks. My small town voted 3 times against joining the multi-town union HS being built in a neighboring town. The "againsts" were of the sentiment that "our HS was good enough for my great-granddad and my kids, so it's good enough for my grandkids". As predicted by the supporters, when the new HS opened (my sophomore year)we lost several good HS teachers to it and couldn't replace them with the same quality. The school joined another union district after I graduated, but it wasn't and still isn't as good a school as the union the town refused. Instead of town HS of 125 kids or less, the new schools had about 600, so teachers could teach only their specialty (our sci teacher had to teach 4 sciences) and the school could offer more classes, AP classes,more vocational classes and more extracurriculars.