STEM? STEAM? Why the acronym doesn’t matter

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I teach at a STEM magnet middle school where approximately 1/3 of our students are participants in a lottery-based magnet program. We’re essentially a school-within-a-school, where 1/3 of our students have access to cohorted classes that include PBL (project based learning) approaches to curriculum as well as special electives like the computer science classes that I teach. While only a third of our students are formally in the program, our school is constantly exploring ways to provide more access to STEM opportunities for all students.

In a recent faculty meeting, while discussing ways to create more equity in access for all students, a teacher shared that we should consider that not all students are interested in STEM.

I understood what she meant on a personal level (this computer science teacher dreamt of being a lawyer — surprise!), and I agree that not every child is interested in pursuing a career in a STEM field. But we need to differentiate between STEM fields and STEM pedagogy. You see, the universally accepted definition of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (or STEAM, if you’re adding art) – is a restrictive understanding of what the pedagogy is.

STEM isn’t just about science and technology – it is a way of thinking and working that empowers students to be solution-oriented and to collaboratively persist in solving problems. STEM education at its best teaches students how to think logically – to break down every challenge, whether mathematical or societal, and to iterate until it is solved.

So if the definition of STEM is not “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” what is it? In addition to the Four C’s of 21st Century Learning (critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity and innovation), I’d offer that STEM pedagogy reflects the following beliefs and structures:

Fewer assignments, more problems: And I don’t mean problem sets. Instead of filling our students’ days with worksheets or PowerPoints, class time should be spent on solving actual problems that exist within our students’ worlds. We have to accept that in order to do work that is meaningful, we may have to devote more time to each assignment. I promise it’s worth it, and that students learn more from a two week long PSA project than they would completing three or four defined assignments in that same time.

Authentic, meaningful work: I don’t know about you, but I get frustrated when I’m given work that seems to take a lot of my time without giving me much in return. And yet, much of the time in the school day is spent on work that doesn’t matter to kids. A simple test? Give your students permission to ask why they’re doing any given assignment. If you can’t give them a good answer that matters to them, it’s probably time to move on to the next activity. Authentic, meaningful work is intrinsically motivating, and our kids should get to do more of it.

Focused on the process, not just the solution: I have a confession. Sometimes (typically, at the end of the year), I assign kids a project knowing that some – and maybe even many – of my students will not finish. Why? Because there is value in students doing high level work even if there isn’t enough time for them to see it to completion. And because sometimes, kids get really excited about a project and bite off way more than they can chew…and they don’t finish. Or, they do really high quality work, but they still get the wrong answer or their final project doesn’t do what it needs to. Students can’t only be graded on the final project – their process matters just as much, if not more.

So no, not every child wants to become a chemist or a doctor. Some children, like me, dream of becoming a lawyer or journalist. But being trained using STEM pedagogy facilitates the sharpening of skills that make all students better at whatever field they choose. All children deserve learning experiences focused on solving real world, authentic problems, allowing them to practice collaboration, communication, and creativity. In a world where more tasks and jobs are becoming automated, empowering our students to be collaborative problem solvers, creative innovators, and reflective, lifelong learners makes them indispensable… and they’ll even have fun while doing it.

Published by Jen

A political science major turned computer science teacher, I am passionate about inspiring a love for learning through authentic, real world experiences. I blog about education: ways we can help students succeed, how to innovate within the classroom, and my own quest to never stop learning.

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