Sunday, August 13, 2017

Understanding STEM: Beyond Those Four Letters

Mundelein HS
The focal point of this article is Ireland (and the relationship Microsoft has with some colleges and schools); however, much of what is true for Ireland is true for the rest of the world. Girls lose interest in STEM and many girls--and educators--do not understand how STEM (or STEAM) is relevant to their lives. What gets in our way, I think, is our understanding of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. For example, when we think about science, we think about the sciences--chemistry, biology, etc. The same is true for math. The other day there were some kids in my neighborhood who were trying to build a low decorative wall. They were busy building it as I drove by and when I came back by an hour or so later, they were standing there, staring at the wall, hands on hips. I turned and parked on the street and ambled over.

"So what's up?"

They turned to me in surprise. I surveyed the work they'd done so far, the piles of stones, the wheelbarrows, and the tools. Finally one of the sighed and said, "We think we made a mistake because the mortar doesn't seem to be holding. Some of the stones are sliding."

The other also sighed and said, "I'm not sure we measured right for the mortar and I'm sure we didn't measure right for stones because it's not coming out right."

Long pause.

"We didn't realize there would be so much math. . ." said one, "or science" said the other. "We thought we were just gonna get to build stuff."

Someone who appeared to be a supervisor of sorts had joined us and just grinned at those comments. He clapped both boys on the shoulders with a big smile, "Great learning, fellas! Now let's see what we need to do to fix this!"

He nodded at me and they got started discussing options. The boys got animated as they started to problem solve and maybe because they realized their mistakes weren't the end of the world and, I hope, that they could learn from them. I driven past the finished product a couple of times since then. It looks good and it's still standing.

The experiences of these two young men are what we need kids to understand about STEM. Math and science are part of the everyday world. Putting in a garden? There's a reason the nursery has some plants and not others, and why the labels let us know how much sun, space, and water they'll need. What to create your grandmother's famous recipe but for 10 instead of 4? There will be math. There is no getting around that. As you review the recipe while shopping you realize one of the ingredients isn't available? Well, there is some science to that to find the right flavor profile or get the right reaction among ingredients. Many a novice baker has learned the difference between baking powder and baking soda the hard way.

Let's go ahead and make it STEAM. The arts? You bet--in designing that border wall, in designing the landscaping for that garden, in preparing the final product of that recipe (we eat first with our eyes).

Trying to find a more efficient way to remove last season's products and replace them with the upcoming season's products? There is math involved as well as a science of consumer buying and behavior. If you need to make some adjustments to the design and layout of the shelving, there is some engineering involved and maybe even some technology. Oh yes, and art because the designing the layout of those shelves and organizing those products to attract the consumer is no small thing.

My focus is mostly on STEM rather than STEAM because I think we see the "A" in some things more easily than we see STEM. On the other hand, I also know we find it hard to see the STEM in things that seem to be more readily a part of the arts. Even so, I'm going to continue to use the STEM acronym although I'll also reference that which is clearly A. Why? Because most of our schools refer to STEM which may very well be part of the problem.

The other day I was watching one of those building shows when the crew is creating a home out of weird stuff. In this case they were using old dairy trucks as the "base." Yes, of course, there is a lot of math and a lot of engineering and not just because they had to figure out how to move the dairy trucks to the building location, but just all of the "wish list" features and then adjustments based on necessity. There were some really cool features. But what struck me was their use of cedar, which was repurposed. I was surprised they had access to cedar in Bastrop County, Texas. Especially because I'd just watched another show in which they had used cedar in a floating home for a couple in Seattle. Hold on a minute! Those are two different kinds of climates and yet they were using repurposed cedar like it was no big deal. Was it because others had imported to those locations or was it because cedar can really be present in those varied climates and areas? Well, that meant I needed to do some research to get the answer to my questions because it puzzled me. Science? Yes. Among other things.

My point is that elements of STEM--the actual sciences, maths, engineering, and technologies--have a presence in many ways we likely overlook. I might also note that too often we come up with activities that are particular to only one letter of the acronym as though it's not possible or not appropriate for there to be overlap, even though one of the superpowers of STEAM is that it promotes inter- or transdisciplinary ways of thinking and learning.

For example, I found this activity is listed for art and design: research what happens when mixing watercolors and oils. Um, well, does it matter what percentage of watercolor and what percentage of oil? So maybe there is some science as well as math involved as well as the art and science elements of the artistic result of a watercolor and oil mixture. Does it stay on the canvas? How does it work with different types of surfaces? If an artist really does want to combine watercolor and oil, is there anything an artist has to do to achieve a particular result? Different tools? (Engineering) Specific surfaces? (Science and maybe engineering) If you think oil and water just don't mix, you might want to check out this YouTube video, just for kicks.

In this TeachingChannel video, an English teacher is asking her students to develop a reality TV show. There is math as they think about timing; there is engineering and technology as they think about production; there is social science as they think about what will appeal to viewers but also the possibility of some other sciences as they think about what will be on their show and how it will work.

Michele Perchonok, NASA Food Scientist
I loved watching Good Eats. Alton Brown's show hasn't been on for a while, but one of the things I loved about the show is how he explained the science of food and made that science accessible. It made me wonder if I'd taken a different path if I'd had a different exposure to chemistry when I was in school.

Kids who are trying to figure out how to land a jump or do a trick with their skateboards probably aren't really interested in the physics, but if they understood the physics they might have a better chance of figuring out what they need to do differently. And if they understood the physics and could do the math, they might be able to build better ramps and other features. Just think about the skills and various content knowledge they might need to craft a proposal for a skateboard park in their neighborhood, especially if they had to submit a design for approval! STEM, STEM, and more STEM.

The kids who want to design furniture or clothing need to understand which materials are most appropriate. You want to create a gown that will drape in a certain way? There are fabrics that will work and other that won't. These are the kinds of careers we typically don't associate with STEM, and yet. . .  Going to a fabric store, pulling bolts of fabric off the shelf, and examining those fabrics can be quite a learning experience in STEM. Ask any seamstress or tailor about what they do and how they do it will be an eye-opening experience in various elements of STEM. The same is true for furniture designers. Or jewelry designers. Or those who make designs with clay, glass, and a thousand other kinds of things including food designers, and not just pastry chefs and bakers. They don't think about their work in terms of STEM, but you can be sure there are elements of STEM in the work of almost every single artisan.

One of the reason girls lose interest in STEM-related subjects around the age of 15 has something to do with biology--their own. But it has a lot to do with the way we teach those subjects as though science, technology, engineering, and math have very narrow capabilities and possibilities.

I was going through some old books not too long ago and realized some of them need some binding TLC. Ahh. Book binding. STEM, or STEAM. Which made me think about how typesetting has changed, which made me think about how book publication has changed, which made me think about how even the invention and innovation of writing utensils has changed and that while some think the next edtech unicorn is speech-to-text so kids will not have to learn how to type, I still see some fascination with calligraphy and fountain pens.

We are awash in STEM (and STEAM) and don't even realize it.

We need to realize it so our kids can realize it so that instead of becoming less interested in STEM they become more interested in finding new applications for STEM and new ways of thinking about STEM. And when we refer to STEAM, let's do so as though we mean it and not just as though we are paying lip service to whatever we think the inclusion of arts might mean.

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