Changing the Culture Around STEM Education

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There are a wide number of movements afoot to promote STEM education.  Programs we have participated in this year like FIRST LEGO League, COSI MakerFaire and STEMfest! are just a few of many different approaches to broaden the reach and appeal of STEM.  For a yardstick on this movement, here is a list of about 100 summer K-8 STEM programs at colleges and universities around the country.

Here is my impromptu best of breed traits I’ve seen in STEM programs and based upon my own career in STEM.  Not every STEM program can incorporate all these elements and to do so would probably be prohibitively expensive on a mass scale.  Still, I’ll hold these up as the gold standard of what would result in the optimal STEM program.

Realistic – The problem addressed should be a real-world problem or as close to one as possible which naturally lends itself to a project-based learning approach.  A great example, is the FIRST LEGO League Research Project which gives kids a very loosely defined problem area (eg Education) and has them identify their real world problem, survey existing solutions and come up with their own innovative product or service.

Rigorous – While survey courses would be fine in small doses, STEM programs that offer to teach a subject in depth are essential to equip students to gain a deep understanding and functional knowledge of STEM.  Better to be able to program a simple 3D game or phone app than only have a 10,000 ft understanding of a more complex system that one can never realize.

Meaningful – It is harder to generate interest and elicit effort for abstract STEM exercises that lead nowhere.  STEM is very much a practical and results-driven broad field of study.  Much of the rewards of working in STEM is seeing your discovery or creation solving meaningful problems in the real-world and helping people.

Hands-On – Most STEM fields are very hands-on by nature outside of pure math and theoretical physics.  Also, learning by doing is the best mode for many kids to master most academic subjects.  There is also the added benefit of seeing a physical work product gradually take shape and arise out of an purely theoretical idea.

Competitive – Most of us respond better when there is something on the line – a grade, a test score, an award, etc.  Ideally, we would be purely motivated by internal criteria such as curiosity and innate drive but this is far less common than the boost provided by external social approval.

Inclusive – Just like not everyone will go on to become Tom Brady, not everyone will go onto to win a Nobel Prize in a STEM field.  FIRST LEGO League does a great job of generating interest and enthusiasm at all levels of ability and tournament competitions.  Teams are expected to demonstrate gracious professionalism and coopertition throughout their season and Judges walk the floor at tournaments to see how well teams are doing in promoting these values.  It’s a unique experience to see so many other teams and team members proactively reach out and try to help strangers during the season or at tournaments.  I’ve seen teams do outstanding on technical aspects like the robot competition fail to win or advance in tournaments because they are so narrowly focused on their own interests or the purely technical challenge.

Social/Fun – STEM fields can be pretty inhumane in both solitary practice how they tend reduce people into a single dimension rank-order quantity.  As someone once told me, it’s like your entire existence is reduced to simply putting your brain on scale.   FIRST LEGO League does a great job of synthesizing the spirit of competition and cooperation with their “gracious professionalism” and “coopertition” model where individuals and even teams work together like crazy against the problem, not against each other.

Affordable/Accessible – This is the one area where FIRST LEGO League poses a challenge.  It is difficult to promote all the benefits of FLL without significant community support in terms of both financial and volunteerism.

little_stingers_wrestlingOur rural area does a great job in promoting and developing sports for the kids in our community.  I’ve volunteered as a T-ball coach, soccer coach, basketball coach and wrestling coach over the years here and have been impressed by how well the systems provide kids the opportunity to learn, participate and have fun at an early age.  I’ve often thought of how we could take the best of these sports models and apply them to academics.

In particular, the Little Stingers Wrestling program was specifically designed to cultivate interest and ability in kids as young as 5 years old.  Part of the motivation behind starting this youth program was to create a pipeline of talent for the older Killer Bees Wresting Club and High School Wresting Teams.  There is a strong support for the program and the kids compete like mad at all levels.  The older kids help coach the younger ones and are looked up to as role models.  We even had a local Mt. Vernon girl who now trains with the US Olympic team come back to talk and inspire the kids.

jobs_iphone_webSteve Jobs Introduces the iPhonerussian_propagandaAnonymous Worker Celebrating an Abundant Grain Harvest

Which of the Two Posters Connects and Inspires You More ?

Humans are aspirational creates.  It is our nature to see out excellence, admire the unbreakable human spirit, create heroes and even emulate them as best we can.  We don’t respond well en mass to ideas in the abstract, but rather gravitate to individuals to represent the embodiment of what we value:  Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, Tom Brady, or even Kim Kardashien (I hope I mispelt that).  The Soviet Union utterly failed to inspire anyone by prizing production quotas or mythologizing the anonymous laborer who is replaceable as any widget.

rude-tween-horizontal-large-galleryAnother key factor in successfully elevating the profile of STEM in particular and academics in general in our community is to engage kids before the difficult tween years after which doing well or being interested in school can become stigmatized.  Like Little Stingers, we should strive to create as broad-based pipeline of STEM talent as early as possible that will graduate on to redefine our academic culture and erase negative stereotypes around STEM.

For example, before I founded our team this year I had several promising candidates whose profiles seemed an ideal match for our inaugural FIRST LEGO League season in the form of a math, a chemistry and a physics professors’ sons.  Not only did they not show the slightest interests, but some even seemed repulsed by the idea of doing something “nerdy” which, as smart kids, was a label they were already actively trying hard to resist.

It’s time to redefine our culture around STEM and promote excellence in academics like we do in sports.



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