I’ve been pretty amused by the mania to turn our science and math curricula into “STEM.”
My path to the science classroom was unconventional. I took my Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science from The Ohio State University straight to a chemistry lab. I used atomic absorption spectroscopy, gas chromatography, and Kjeldahl digestions to analyze everything from the protein content in alfalfa to pesticide residues in soil. I had to be creative. I had to invent things. I had to mess things up, to do things that didn’t work, and then I had to make them work. Then, I ran the quality control department in a food production facility (human, this time.) If someone had gotten sick or died from consuming our product, I would have been responsible. I got pretty good at creative troubleshooting. I left that job when our first son was born. A bit bored, I joined up with 3 other scientists and a salesman to start a company. We collected soil and crop samples from dairy and hog farmers, analyzed the samples for nutrients, and then manufactured custom fertilizer for the soils and nutritional supplements for the animals based on the feeds they grew. I remained a partner until Baby Number Last was ready for preschool. I was at work until about 4 hours before his birth. I returned to work with baby in tow when he was 5 days old. But I digress. And, by the way, was any of this STEM?
When Baby Number Last reached preschool age, I had a revelation that if I should become a teacher, I’d be able to stay home all summer with my kids. (More on that later….) I made an appointment with a university about 70 miles away to have my transcript evaluated to see what I’d need to do to be certified to teach science. I already had major hours in biology (animal science, remember?) and chemistry. I had zero hours in education courses. There were no easy alternative programs. I would have to be a current subject-area expert and master methods for teaching science and math to teens. I found a loan that would be repaid if I taught a physical science or math for 4 years, put my youngest in preschool, and got myself admitted. Two years, many chemistry, physics, calculus, and earth science courses, enough education courses to put me close to a masters degree in education, and a semester of student teaching later, I landed my first science teaching job. Was there rigor, here? STEM?
I didn’t mean for this to turn into a memoir, so I’ll get to the point. I had hours and courses equivalent to undergraduate majors in biology, chemistry, and math. I had almost major hours in physics and earth science. I’d taught for 6 years, sampling various flavors of professional development. It should be noted at this point that I hadn’t had a summer off to spend with my kids, yet. Most things I did were somewhat useful in my classroom, but nothing was really exciting. I pulled a lot from my experience in professional laboratories.
At that point, I ran across an opportunity to work for a summer on a pretty awesome project as a contractor at a major military base. I can’t tell you exactly what I did, except that it involved virtual reality (this was pretty cutting edge in 1995, molecular bonding, intermolecular forces, and bond energy, and a high-level security clearance (just call me Kelly McGillis). My work is published in some classified military journals, and pieces of my heart and soul are in aircraft windshields and pilots’ eyewear. The benefit to my chemistry students was access to the scanning electron microscopes on the base for some nifty projects they designed. Is this STEM?
I completed National Board Certification in 1998, the first year it was available in science. That story is here. I’m mentioning it because it was career-changing. Completing the 6 classroom entries (this was The Olden Olden Days) taught me the process of continual self-evaluation, reflection, and improvement. It taught me to put students in the center of all that I do.
A few summers later, I worked at a local foundry. I learned to smelt iron, make and analyze alloys, read blueprints created by engineers, and run quality control on our incoming shipments of metals and on out products. I helped lab techs iron out some issues in their protocols. My chemistry students got a bunch of new applications in their lab work and access to first-hand experience in a local manufacturing plant with its own analytical lab. Any STEM here?
I considered, at one point, that I might like to teach pre-service teachers, in a university teacher preparation program. I took a gig at a local university teaching chemistry to pre-service elementary teachers. I looked at some doctoral programs and learned, to my terror, that it was possible at some major research universities to get a doctorate in science education without ever taking a science course. This was not the path I wanted. I finally located a great program within driving distance, with science courses offered evenings and summers so I could keep teaching, and best of all, they offered me a half-time fellowship if I’d also teach a bit. I would be paid to earn this degree. I was in.
If you’ve taken doctoral level science courses, you know that they aren’t sit-and-get. They’re pretty project-based, to use another current buzzword. You’re expected to become an expert about something, and then create new knowledge about that thing. Sometimes, you have to think innovatively about that thing. You might have to problem-solve. You have to read, write, design processes, collect, organize, and analyze data, generally with statistical methodology. There might even be a real-world application. (Any STEM, yet?) So, yeah, I finished that, too. My students got a look at how new knowledge is really formed in science as we analyzed the heavy metal content of a local river. (STEM?) But first, you have to KNOW something. You have to know a LOT, in fact.
In another school, in another community far, far, away, my physics students worked with county engineers to design a bridge that would be an escape route for the community in an impending geological natural disaster. The kids did not use toothpicks and marshmallows (that was done in the middle school.) My students used Google Sketchup, which they taught to themselves AND to the engineers. The design they created with the engineers will be used to construct the bridge. Any STEM in this?
My point, then:
Most teachers hop straight from their undergrad days into the classroom. Some pass through an alternate certification route after obtaining a bachelors’ degree and then deciding, “Oops! I really wanted to be a teacher, after all. How can I make that happen now?” Rarely do they manage more than a passing project or two in some professor’s lab, or maybe an internship, before claiming to know enough science to teach children. Many have had only a handful of courses in the subject area they will teach. (I’ve worked with teachers teaching chemistry or physics who have ZERO coursework in chemistry or physics.) To offer them “STEM” as I’ve seen it marketed by the exhibitors at recent conferences is pretty lame. Most such offerings are simply knockoffs of the same old content we’ve been teaching for years, infused with a little new technology, literacy, and math, and re-labeled as STEM. Much is written by teachers who have no real-world experience and maybe 3-5 years in the classroom.
Here’s why……. I currently have a physics colleague who has her kids building things constantly. They calculate, build, test, calculate, revise, test, revise…. Another colleague runs a horticulture program. He’s built 2 greenhouses on our campus. His classes propagate and raise plants and sell them for about $40K per season. Still another colleague worked in a genetics research lab before becoming a HS science teacher. She’s published a bunch of papers on topics I’ve never heard of. She holds patents on genetics stuff she’s made. Why are we not pulling from the knowledge of those within our building instead of seeking commercial “STEM” curriculum? Why are we pushing contrived curriculum labeled as STEM on these professionals who obviously have a much better understanding of the application of science than the authors of much commercial curriculum?
I’m stepping outside the comfort box once again to suggest we try something else. Other schools are embracing reality and designing their own programs. We don’t (yes, I’ve talked to my colleagues on this one) want to buy something from other schools and make it fit our kids. We want to design our own program. I see massive potential in my science colleagues. They did some pretty great work before I arrived, and the time is right for us to do great work once again.
Wait. And. See.