That’s right. I am standing in front of the multi diesel locomotive driven train we call STEM with my hand up saying, “Hold up a second.” I know the lag time to come to a stop will be great and I risk being flattened. I have faith however, that the embedded systems we are attempting to instill in our students via STEM education will prevail and thus, create a way to slow the train quickly, and I’ll be safe. So, here it goes.
“Hold up a second.”
Those systems are kicking in and so far, I see the train beginning to slow. While I start to sweat the reality and weight of that approaching mass of metal, let’s talk about why I am standing here.
I imagine many of you have limited time to play out this scenario. So, I’ll jump to the end. STEM…it may be popularly represented as an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, but, it shouldn’t be. I suggest we re-frame our conversations to something more like,
STEM = Service, THINKING, Engagement, Modeling
Why? STEM as we know it is just a list of subjects. That means, we’ve opened the door for subjects NOT on the list to feel left out. They may not be left out, but boy, when you’re not on the list, you can feel that way. Enter the “ARTS.” Now, I am a life-long musician and past music teacher. With the current STEM labeling, I can see why those supporting the arts feel like STEAM should be our focus. But, I think that’s wrong. I’ve shared with my fellow music educators my justification for that reason. My life has given me a ton of great opportunities, and one of those was serving as a project manager for a multi-year, grant-funded after-school “STEM” project. I learned, through intense focus on the real meaning of STEM that the arts are inherently present in true STEM education. I know the argument is that we need to build the arts into the name or it won’t “stick.” That’s why it makes more sense to redefine the STEM formula. Maybe tomorrow, we think Sociology is missing and we’ll need to add another “S”. That gives us “STEAMS.” Maybe then we notice History, Interpreting, and Photography are missing. Then, we’ll have “STEAMSHIP.” I kind of like that though…humm.
Anyway, my point is, we’ve create a label that is nothing more than a short list of subjects, not much different that labeling courses such as SCI 101, or ENG 204. STEM is just a perceived list of prioritized subjects that is supposed to do more than list the subjects. And, I believe our intent is to focus on the deeper meaning behind STEM. So, let’s get there from the top. Let’s change our model of STEM by NAME so it reflects what we really see as the value behind the pedagogy.
Enter…STEM = Service, THINKING, Engagement, Modeling.
Service: I can’t think of a better word to start off our new modeling of STEM. Service describes the very purpose behind any work done within the fields of study embedded in STEM. When we teach kids about Service, we are teaching them to discover with purpose. And, that purpose is one of Service. Service to others, Service to community, Service to Country, Service to Self. Making the world a better place is a pretty awesome endeavor. Scientific discovery is aimed at Service, or at least it should be.
Now, I want to share a bit about current methodologies. STEM solutions abound. Apps, gadgets, tech, games, computational devices, and kits fill our shelves. I am a techie, so don’t think I don’t defend our gadgets. I’ll take a little bird walk and share a story to set my perspective though. If you’re pressed for time, you can jump ahead.
From 1993-1998, I was a music educator. I taught for a district that was tech focused and eager to integrate tech tools. Remember, this was 1993 and the internet was just finding a mainstream purpose in schools. I helped setup labs, test computers and fix printers even though it wasn’t in my job description. I loved helping others move past the basics so the kids could use the tech. In my classroom, I established a tech presence. The school supported the purchase of equipment to turn my classroom into a recording studio, MIDI lab and digital music performance center. I had multiple keyboards, a digital drum set, a wind machine, multiple computers with notation and composition software and other gadgets. My story is about that digital drum set. I had a student in general music who profoundly changed my perspective on gadgets. His name was Jack (for this story), and Jack struggled. He struggled to be a motivated learner. He struggled to come to school on time and struggled to pretend to be asleep in my general music class. He had no real musical training or skills, but one day, after the arrival of the digital drum set, he came and ask me if he could use it. I showed him the basics (that took about 1 minute) and he was hooked. He would put the headphones on and pound away. I say pound because that’s what he did. This barely awake kid, pounded away. The tool created something for him an acoustic drum set could not. He could be in his own world through the headset, change sounds, and experiment and create within his own capabilities. He showed up each morning for some time to play. He seemed excited and more motivated to come to school. And, he stayed awake in general music. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but that story reminds me that our gadgets are vehicles, not destinations. And, we need not elevate them beyond. I spent ZERO time teaching the gadget. It taught itself.
That brings me to my second point about Service. The apps, gadgets, tech, games, computational devices, and kits are NOT stem. They Service our human needs to create and we must always keep that in mind. The new model of STEM is meant to be bi-directional. From one perspective, Service gives the work focus. From another perspective, the tools we use to teach provide a Service back to our efforts and those of the learners.
With a focus on Service, let’s explore the rest of the new framework.
THINKING: I capitalize THINKING for a reason. THINKING is everything. STEM pedagogy prioritizes THINKING. We have to think in order to be Service minded. We must think to create solutions (oh…wait…a sub category of Service. If we are Service minded we THINK in order to create solutions…Love it!).
Metacognition in a framework of STEM is not my idea. Many way smarter people than me created that connection. I started the conversation around gadgets above for another reason. Consider the tools you use most. Why do you use them more than others? Could it be they help you produce? Produce ideas, products, and results. The tools, i.e., gadgets we use should do that for us. I recently had a conversation with a local start-up company about the shelf-life (life of customer interest) of their invention. It is a game with physical movement and measurement involved. It is winning many awards and being well placed within large sales channels. I applaud the group. They’ve done amazing work. I also see a significant challenge. During a recent awards ceremony, a mother shared with me that she bought the game for her two kids. I asked her how the kids liked it and she said, they used it a bit during Christmas and haven’t had it out since. What’s missing? I think, the THINKING of the user is missing.
No matter what device, or gadget we put in the hands of learners, we must frame it around the THINKING to be done. It is great that we have shelves of gadgets to choose from. But, we must keep in mind that the even the best gadgets may not get kids THINKING on their own. That’s where our educational systems must play a role.
THINKING is not just related to gadgets. The projects, challenges and problems presented to learners within a STEM context will be solved via THINKING. The effort to think must be prioritized so students understand how to do it. A fundamental purpose of STEM is to create problem solvers. A friend of mine also says, we need “problem identifiers.” I love that phrase. As we think about STEM, we have an opportunity to build a student’s capacity to THINK, to identify unnoticed problems, and solve them.
Engagement: By now, you should see the relationship between the components of the new STEM framework. When we humans are THINKING, and taking a perspective of Service for the purpose of helping solve problems, we are…wait for it…yes…. we are Engaged. That’s fantastic. So, what’s the challenge with engagement? If we get the students thinking and they have a perspective of service, they will be engaged, end of effort, right? Noooooooo…… Let’s talk about sustainable engagement. Long term, not lesson engagement, project engagement, activity engagement, conversation engagement as our measure. Let’s pull in our gadgets again. We try gadget A, we try gadget B, we are engaged, we move on to gadget C and a new day, I am engaged. Great…What am I engaged in? Is there a relationship between gadgets and my engagement? Is there a theme I am engaged in or am I engaged in the moment and not the mission?
As a music educator, I saw the power of true engagement. A year, after year, after year commitment of my students to their gadget, their musical instrument, meant they had to be engaged in the bigger picture. That shiny new instrument dulls over time and the repetitive lessons start to become tiresome if they aren’t engaged in something higher, something beyond the idea of playing the saxophone because their best friend does too. As a musician myself I feel the pull of engagement that is lasting and so personally gratifying. That quest, that inner, untiring ability to keep “at it”, call it GRIT, call it what you want, but it should be our focus in STEM. Engagement beyond the moment, engagement in the deeper journey.
Modeling: I feel like I saved the best for last. But, it’s just because I had to build a new Framework that ended in an M. Modeling ties everything together. I’m doing it now. I’ve modeled a new way of thinking and I am adding the words to share my thinking. I’ve shown a picture (the formula above) to help explain the complexity of my thinking, but simply. I read an article on the Feynman method. The gist was that to test what you are thinking, teach it to a young child. This forces you to REALLY know your stuff. Using simple language enables you to explain clearly and assume little. Modeling is similar from my perspective. Modeling takes the complex and simplifies it. What if we could get every student to build a model showcasing the thing they are going to pursue in life after high school? What would that mean to our country? Where are we teaching modeling? Modeling can and should be applied to ANY subject area. Therefore, I started this effort to redefine STEM. We don’t just model in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields. We should be teaching modeling in all subjects. Why? Because we need more modelers, more content creators in the world. We need ideas to come to life and they won’t come to life if we can’t model.
I hear the wheels of the heavy locomotive screaming against the momentum of STEM as we know it. Yet, I have faith we can be introspective and use the core values STEM is intended to create in learners and quickly find a path that goes beyond four subjects and the perceptions that naming convention communicates. I see great work in this area and by no means feel it is my place to say this work is not happening. I am not a bait click producer hoping to get 100’s of comments saying, “this is already happening, open your eyes.” I believe it is happening and that’s why I am writing this. I want to see more evidence, more stories shared, more perspectives on the meaning of STEM.
I’m feeling the breeze from the air being pushed by the approaching train. Will it pause for this moment and consider these thoughts? Let’s find out.