In Education Reform, the Focus on STEM Education Ignores What STEM Education Is

For most parts of the country, we’re about a month into summer vacation. Kids are at home, not thinking about school, while you see your kids at home, wishing they were back there.

I kid (sort of?)

One of the tragic things about political news coverage today is that it is too focused on all things Donald Trump, and rarely do we get to focus on real policies. Instead of focusing on a message, we are arguing over the messenger.

This hurts, as there are plenty of issues we can and should be debating, and education reform is one of them.  With all that’s going on in the foreground, the discussion is going on in the background, but there are some issues that we have to address. In the education reform fight, we need to talk about the focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

Whenever people talk about STEM in education, they are talking about results. They want to see more students (particularly female and minority students) graduating in and working in STEM fields. However, STEM education should not be relegated to a college major or even a high school career track. Rather, elements of STEM education should be taught across the various subjects in ways that can properly attune students to what we could call a more STEM-centric thought process.

For example: In engineering, there is a school of thought called the “engineering design process,” which is a five-step plan for solving a problem.

  1. Ask
  2. Imagine
  3. Plan
  4. Create
  5. Improve

If you’ve ever seen this in chart form, you’ll notice it comes in a circular flow-chart – “Improve” flows back into “Ask”, meaning that just because you make the improvement doesn’t mean the job is done. Growth comes from constantly challenging ideas and seeking to improve on a constant basis.

This isn’t something that should solely be used for engineering, though. Imagine applying this in English classes, where students have to come up with an idea for creating a short story. They can “ask” themselves what genres and ideas interest them, “imagine” what they think the setting and characters should look like, “plan” how they will develop their plot and characters, “create” their story, and then “improve” their story in the editing process.

It’s not difficult to do in an English setting. I’ve taught it, and it has resonated with students. The same can go for social studies, which can be boiled down to a study of how people solved problems (history), grew and developed (geography), organized and planned (civics), improved (economics), and interacted (sociology).

STEM education, you see, should be the process by which we teach students to think. It’s not the outcomes, measuring what they learned, that matter, but the process of learning itself. There are ways to organize your schools or even your districts to align them more toward this process, but it requires parents, teachers, and administrators coming to the table.

It would also require focusing less on results like test scores and more on processes, which is not something people like. People complain about standardized testing, but quietly acknowledge that the resulting school scores and grades are a great way to decide if their child should attend one school or another. However, if we quit focusing on the testing and focus more on the process, you will actually see those scores improve, and with them, a revitalization of American education as a whole.

In other words, the focus on STEM education is ultimately correct, but in order for it to be successful in helping our education system, there needs to be a better understanding of what STEM education really is.

Keep in mind, though, that this is an idea, and it’s one that we can discuss or debate, but we have to start having more of these discussions in order to put real reform efforts forward. We have got to focus on ideas and policy and start ignoring the fights over personality.