Getting Kids Hooked on STEM Subjects, Part 1

Stephen DeAngelis

September 9, 2013

“The idea that the nation faces a crisis in science education has more than hit home,” writes Terence Monmaney. “Many Americans think U.S. teens perform even worse on standardized science tests than they actually do.” [“How Much Do Americans Know About Science?Smithsonian, May 2013] Monmaney also reports that a national survey by Smithsonian and the Pew Research Center “found unusually strong support for boosting math and science instruction in school.” That begs the question: when should such education begin? Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, believes STEM education should start much earlier than most people imagine. [“To Develop Tomorrow’s Engineers, Start Before They Can Tie Their Shoes,” Smithsonian, 22 July 2013] She is not alone in that belief and she reports that “in a small but growing number of classrooms around the country, and you’ll see engineering being taught in preschool and elementary school using a method called Ramps and Pathways.” She explains:

“In Ramps and Pathways classrooms, children explore the properties and possibilities inherent in a few simple materials: blocks, marbles, and strips of wooden cove molding, a long, thin construction material used to finish cabinets and trim ceilings. Teachers push desks and chairs out of the way to allow room for the sometimes-sprawling roller coasters that emerge. By building and adjusting inclines propped by blocks, children experiment with marbles moving along various paths. Their job is to test and retest different angles, figuring out new ways to take their marbles on a wild ride.”

Anybody who has ever fallen asleep in a classroom knows that you don’t learn anything if you are bored. Monmaney notes that one question asked in the Smithsonian/Pew survey queried respondents about why they thought that “young people don’t pursue degrees in science and math.” He reports, “22 percent of those surveyed said such degrees weren’t useful to their careers and 20 percent said the subjects were ‘too boring.’ By far the most common response, though, was that science and math were ‘too hard,’ a belief held by 46 percent of respondents.”

 

Getting small children to have fun while exploring engineering concepts is a great way to pique their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to incorporate play and learning – at least in today’s educational environment. According to a Vanderbilt University study, “Early spatial ability — the skill required to mentally manipulate 2D and 3D objects — predicts the development of new learning and innovation abilities, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).” And these skills are fairly well developed by the time a student reaches middle school. [“Middle School Test Scores Predict Tech Career Success,” by Chad Brooks, BusinessNewsDaily, 16 July 2013] Brooks explains:

“Using data from a study that began in the late 1970s, researchers analyzed 563 students who had scored exceptionally well — in the top 0.5 percent — on the SATs at age 13. The researchers also examined data on the participants’ spatial ability at age 13, as measured by the Differential Aptitude Test. Confirming previous research, the data revealed that participants’ mathematical and verbal reasoning scores on the SAT at age 13 predicted their likelihood of producing scholarly publications and patents 30 years later. But spatial ability at the same age yielded additional predictive power, which researchers said suggests that early spatial ability contributes in a unique way to later creative and scholarly results, especially in the STEM areas.”

David Lubinski, a psychology researcher and one of the study’s authors, and his team “believe cultivating these skills is imperative for ensuring scientific innovation.” The question remains: How do you get children excited about STEM subjects? Naveen Jain, Entrepreneur and Founder of the World Innovation Institute, writes, “Imagine education that is as entertaining and addictive as video games. Sound far-fetched? I believe that this is exactly the idea — driven by dynamic innovation and entrepreneurism — that will help bring our education system out of the stone ages.” [“School’s Out for Summer: Rethinking Education for the 21st Century,” Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2013] Jain can get pretty worked up about all the things he sees wrong with today’s educational system. He writes:

“Our education system is obsolete. For starters, we are educating students under a system based on industrial-age thinking, where they advance to the next level based on their age, not ability. Some children are naturally good at one subject and can master it quickly but may take a little longer to comprehend a different subject. It’s astounding that we are advancing children on a fixed-time basis, leaving our exceptional students to languish for a full year and our challenged students to struggle and yet advance. Further, the school year is structured to adhere to the needs of a bygone era when kids had to work on farms in the summer months. Yet less than 5 percent of Americans live on farms today. Injecting a long period of downtime into the school year, students lose critical ground during their months off from school. Also bewildering, our system is fundamentally rooted in a curriculum-based approach, rather than focusing on the strengths of individual students. No two children are alike — nor do they learn best the same way. Some children learn logically, some learn conceptually, some learn visually and some learn experimentally. Put simply, our education system is currently teacher-centric, as opposed to student-centric. And please don’t get me started on ‘No Child Left Behind.’ It might as well be called ‘All Children Left Behind.’ This system of standardized, rote learning that teaches to a test is exactly the type of education our children don’t need in this world that is plagued by systemic, pervasive and confounding global challenges. Today’s education system does not focus enough on teaching children to solve real world problems and is not interdisciplinary, nor collaborative enough in its approach.”

Jain believes that by bringing an entrepreneurial approach to education significant improvements could be made. He believes that new skills could be identified, both for those that teach and for those being taught. He believes that new teaching methods could be developed that are as addictive as video games are for some people. And he believes that we would be able to find ways to adapt instruction to the abilities of the children being taught. Jain concludes:

“Whether our public schools … adapt these ideas … remains to be seen and is difficult to predict. But inevitably, they will disrupt education. … In this new education paradigm, students will get a far better education because the rote learning will be assigned out to computers and avatars, and the teachers can focus on coaching students through the more complex challenges. For their part, students would see school the same way they see videogames — an addictive activity they just can’t stop doing. I believe the future holds this in store if we listen to the best new entrepreneurial ideas and utilize technologies that bring our education system forward.”

Jain is not alone in reimagining how the educational system could be changed. For additional ideas, read an article by Kat Davis entitled “Reimagining the 21st Century Classroom,” UX Booth, 27 August 2013] Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot more thought than action. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll discuss some more ideas concerning how to teach STEM subjects.