How to Channel STEM-Mania Into Real Learning

How to Channel STEM-Mania Into Real Learning
Laura Greene/The High Point Enterprise via AP
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Each year, it seems, the pressure for a young person to get into a good college or university becomes greater. Underlying much of the pressure, almost hysteria in some American households, is a four-letter acronym – STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Think of the largest, fastest-growing U.S. companies – Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook – all hi-tech STEM companies. But STEM talents are also valued by Disney, American Airlines, Uber and even the New England Patriots. Most traditional trades – auto mechanics, electricians, HVAC mechanics and the like – now require STEM knowledge. STEM job growth exceeds that of any other major sector of the economy, and salaries are good and rising.

There’s a STEM-mania among today's young people, boosted by their parents, to acquire a STEM degree and then have a challenging and lucrative career. STEM-mania not only afflicts many in the United States but also those in other countries. Educators everywhere are examining how they educate their young people in STEM, and many are not satisfied. The United Kingdom is consulting China, China is looking to the U.S., and U.S. parents are increasingly enthralled with Russian mathematics.

657, 589, 800 – How would you like to be judged by a number, figuratively pasted on your forehead? That is essentially what we do to high school seniors, whether it’s our SAT’s, Korea’s CSATs, India’s NAT or the so-called “SAT on steroids” – China’s Gaokao. These time-constrained tests typically pose multiple-choice questions that reward rote memorization, not a way to reliably predict future career success. Many countries base assignment to universities solely on standardized test scores. A score of 702 gets you into TU, or Top University. But a drop of one point to 701 means SBU, or Second Best University – and onwards down the line.

Luckily, the university I call home – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – is well aware of these realities and has developed a more nuanced approach – one that considers the entire individual. Yes, standardized test scores are important, but not exclusively so. An applicant to MIT who has strong but far-from-perfect test scores might be admitted if other dimensions of the young person’s life show significant spark. For example, establishing and leading an effective effort to give back to the community, award-winning performance in the arts and/or athletics or overcoming difficult life circumstances by hard work and grit. And, while some MIT students do indeed have perfect SAT scores, such perfection does not automatically get one into MIT. How, you ask? Usually, such non-admittance is due to lack of other significant accomplishments. MIT expects more than excellent grades and test scores.

When I ask a group of educated adults, “How many of you could today pass a test you took in a high school STEM class?” Most say they could not. Yet, they still consider themselves to be well-educated, successful individuals, gainfully employed in challenging professions. How can that be? Maybe employers value something else – like the portfolio of their accomplishments.

Education is a complex human experience. What is it we remember from formal STEM education? Is it the value of π at 3.14159… or Avogadro’s Number at 6.02*1023? Or is it the formula for solving the quadratic equation? No. So what is it we really learned from studying for those high school STEM tests? We learned the process of learning. What we carry forward is not an encircled “answer.” It’s the process leading to that answer. In other words, the true answer is the process, the act of problem-solving. Studying STEM topics such as Newtonian physics, human evolution and trigonometry can provide us with exemplary process – if taught to emphasize discovery and associated thought processes, not rote memorization of facts and formulas. Albert Einstein said it succinctly: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

Are standardized tests necessary? Yes, for assurance that a foundation for learning has been built. But, on top of that foundation, beautiful often unique structures can be created if the young person’s education focuses less on formulaic approaches and more on developing critical and creative thinking skills.

Making significant changes in STEM education, leading more to discovery-focused active learning and less memorizing of “content,” will require substantial changes in educational systems. This is a multi-year difficult challenge but can be pushed forward by committed educators, parents and those being educated – their children.

Through my experience developing active-learning STEM videos for high schools, I’ve seen examples of what works and what doesn’t work. A few insights:

  • Less is more; meaning cover less “material’ in a STEM subject but go into depth on topics covered. Have the students learn to think and act as scientists and engineers, using data, posing hypotheses, creating mental and math models and taking risks – that may lead to failure, and that’s okay.
  • Use phenomenon-based teaching, meaning that new topics are introduced not by naming the theory or method but by introducing a real-world phenomenon whose solution requires the new material. Here's an example: When a figure skater on ice is spinning in one spot with her arms out, why does she spin so much faster as she brings her arms in? This is an example of the conservation of angular momentum, from physics professor Walter Lewin.
  • Have the students work in small teams to attack and generalize some of the topics presented. Follow up some of the phenomenon-based topics with project-based learning, taking weeks to complete, with a short paper and oral delivery to the class. The paper can be added to the student’s portfolio of accomplishments, to be included along with standardized test scores in application to college!

Richard C. Larson, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, is Professor of Data, Systems, and Society at MIT. He serves as PI of MIT BLOSSOMS, an OER (Open Educational Resources) project that makes freely-available, phenomenon-based, interactive video lessons for high school STEM classes.

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