Let’s talk about S.T.E.M. education

February 9, 2018

Dear Editor:

Remember sitting in your math class and saying to yourself, “When am I ever going to use this stuff?”  Or maybe you are working with your kids on science homework and they make the comment, “Do you (mom or dad) ever use this information in your life?”  I imagine most of us have.

As an educator these are valid questions.  Why do we (teachers) expect students to learn the information we give them?  To ensure their success in life, of course.  However, as time changes, we realize that education must change as well.  We must help our students prepare for the demands of tomorrow’s society.  S.T.E.M. education is based on our next generation’s workforce.  There is an ever-increasing emphasis on S.T.E.M. education, but what is S.T.E.M.?

As a twenty-year science, math, high school teacher, I believe in S.T.E.M. education.  It is phenomena based.  It takes a real problem from nature or any real-world situation and investigates it to solve problems, find patterns, and make predictions.  This is the true way of discovery and learning in science and mathematics.

S.T.E.M. is an acromion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  All together that is a mouth full, but when you are trying to solve a problem in the real world, it does require multiple skills at the same time.  In addition, these skills work naturally together. They support each other; they help to define each other.

The following is an explanation of how the four S.T.E.M. components work together to explain a natural phenomenon.   Since S.T.E.M. begins with the letter “S” so shall the explanation, but no one component is more important or primary when compared to the others.  “S” is for science.  Science can be defined as the practice of asking questions about the real-world and finding answers.  This is how science truly begins: a question to a problem or some phenomena that needs to be explained.

Answering such questions require data and information and the use of tools.  “T” is for technology; technology is the use of tools.  Some of the tools are the latest and greatest, but sometimes there is no replacement for a pencil and paper or a hammer and a nail.  Technology can do a lot of work for us, but we need to use technology to help us solve problems.  Think of any work situation or operation; there is always a specialized tool that will assist in the task at hand.   Students need to become comfortable and competent with the required technology and tools.

This leads to the “E” in engineering practices.  Engineering is not just building bridges, although it can be; it can more broadly be defined as solving problems, with limits, and without step by step instructions.   This is what most of us do every day! Engineers solve problems, they build solutions, they create a product that has not yet been created.  It is this ability to create something out of nothing that is essential to remain the creative leader in the world.

Think of times when you were working in the garage, working in the woodshop, creating crafts, or creating a new recipe in the kitchen.  These are times when we use the engineering practices. In these situations, we do not have a step-by-step plan, nor are we sure how the project is going to work out until the project is completed.  There is a huge learning curve when we are motivated by a specific task but do not know how to complete the task.  These situations require research, trial and error, tools, limits, success, and failure.  However, they are fun and what is created and learned along the way is personal and will be remembered.

This bring us to “M” for mathematics.  Mathematics is the use of logic and deductive reasoning.  As a math teacher, I believe mathematics in isolation is worthless; however, it is the basis of everything.  Nothing can be done without the use of mathematics.  For too long, mathematics has only been used in math class where it is used all by itself, in isolation, useless, which is frustrating, for both the students and the teacher because there is nothing to tie it to, nothing to relate it to.  This makes it hard to find mathematics meaningful.

One of the many strengths of the S.T.E.M. approach is that it uses mathematics in a real-world situation to solve a real problem.   Science asks the question, technology provides the data and numbers, the engineering practices are the skills to build a model and create a solution, but mathematics is the logic and proof that the solution WILL OR WILL NOT work when put into practice.

S.T.E.M. education really is a major change in the way these four subjects are taught.  It is a much more organic, natural way of using them.   Students will not be learning facts that may or may not be used in the future on some possible problem that may be encountered.  S.T.E.M. education puts students into real situations that do not have solutions.  The students are then required to use all four components simultaneously to solve these problems.  This how S.T.E.M. education works.

Andrew J. Frisch
Science and Mathematics teacher
Farwell High School

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