Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Our Society's Obsession with STEM/STEAM: Crazy or Critical?

You ask someone to draw a picture of what a scientist looks like and you will most likely get something like this.

A few weeks ago The Washington Post published an article regarding the STEM obsession in America as being dangerous.  Every time we turn a corner, we see the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) /STEAM  (insert Arts) bandwagon making it's way down the educational highway.  But, on the shoulder of the road, are those who may not be motivated by those acronyms. The article reminds us that we need Psychology, Communication, Art History, English, and Music majors (just to name a few). We need also need those who may forgo college,  Manufacturers, Entrepreneurs, Builders, Farmers, Ranchers and others.

What we need more than anything? Kids who know how to think for themselves and problem solve.

There are several important areas I have learned when creating, developing and sustaining STEM/STEAM initiatives to support thinkers; not just consumers or doers, not just scientists, techies or artists, but makers of meaning.

(listed alphabetically, not by priority)

1. Double Entry Reflections:   It's not enough to just experience a new activity, we need to reflect on what is going on. Double entry journals do just that. By simply folding a piece of paper in half you now have created a front and back way to express learning. The left side can be used to write down facts (from the  research or reading), what they are learning as they go through the activity, the right side is meant for reflection. For example, on the left side, the student can answer the question, " What did you find challenging?", then on the right side, "Explain why you found it challenging or different." No need for multiple choice tests or scary assessments, have them keep this working document to share their understanding and thirst for more.

2. Expertise and Involvement: There is not one person out there that could possibly know everything about science, or technology, or math, or art or engineering, especially how to integrate these pieces together. Network, email, and text people who are educated and experienced in different content areas. Invite them in to volunteer their time to share and teach what they know (even if it is just an hour). No presentations...participation! Students are exposed to presentations and power points way too often.  At the STEAM Studio, we have called on high school students (like our own Krishon), college pre-service teachers, and other talented volunteers (the amazing artist John Bukaty) to share what they know in a platform that allows to work with the kids, not tell them, show them and learn from them.

3. Keep Em Interested:  Despite grant money, initial interest and the whole STEM excitement, reports show that many students are not finishing STEM education programs. One of the main reasons is that they lose interest. Learning is no different than other areas of your life; relationships, hobbies, travel...you enjoy being involved with someone or something because there is something different, exciting, memorable and worth learning more about.  They key to getting kids to start what they finish, in regards to STEM/STEAM programs, find what really interests them and build a project or activity around that.

4. Multiple Opportunities: Teachers and parents cannot do it all. There is mandated curriculum which must be taught, a social and family life which is essential to growing, and opportunities needed to inspire life long learning.  After school clubs are a great way to extend enrichment activities while integrating fun and individualized attention beyond the bell. Research shows there are significant benefits, beyond academics, for participants in after school programs. However, many programs only offer one topic, one project or one way to be involved.  STEM/STEAM programming should offer multiple ways to learn and multiple ways to participate through multiple topics.

5. No Recipes:  I'm not saying that anything goes, but we need to get away from structured lesson planning, standardization and assessing our students to death.  Design Thinking allows learners to be explorers. We want them to think for themselves, to be risk takers, to fail then try again, to succeed and evolve their project, to seek improvement in what they are doing.  This is the essence of Design Thinking which is the core of what we do at the STEAM Studio.

Are STEM/STEAM programs crazy or critical? It depends on the vision and mission of the initiative or program. If it is to follow the masses, deliver content through rote memory, standardized testing and push out incredibly boring material, then it is crazy. Facilitating the mad scientist image ingrained in many of our youth will deter them from such a program.  However, if you build, develop and evolve a program which focuses on individual talents, interests, interdisciplinary learning to raise confidence in the areas of STEM/STEAM, then you have a critical calling for the next generation.

I remember one of the first movies that made science look fun: Weird Science. You don't need to be blinded by science, or STEM/STEAM, it can open your eyes to all different types of ways to have fun and learn.

Thomas Dolby - She Blinded Me With Science from Mad Hatter on Vimeo.


  1. Beautifully said, Doctor! :-) I would love to see your STEM studio sometime when we visit KC….

  2. "Kids who know how to think for themselves and problem solve."