I’ve read articles that insist too much emphasis is being placed on STEM education. I couldn’t disagree more. I’m a proponent of STEM education for a lot of reasons; but, the most the most important reason is that STEM subject matter and STEM methodologies give students the best chance of succeeding in whatever path they decide to follow, be it forensic toxicology or fine arts. When students have a good foundation in STEM subjects, they know how to solve problems. No matter what career they pursue, students are going to have to solve problems. The better equipped they are to deal with life’s challenges the more successful they are likely to be. Isaac Groves (@TNIGroves) gives another pretty compelling reason why teaching STEM subjects are important. “STEM is a hot topic in education these days,” he writes, “largely because it is an area where industries and jobs are growing.” The following infographic from mastersed.uc.edu provides an excellent overview of the future job picture, where the U.S. ranks in the world with relation to STEM proficiency, and how hands-on, project-based learning can help make students better problem solvers.
Preparing students to be better problem solvers prepares them better for life. As Groves notes, “People … talk about science, technology, engineering and mathematics as a way to reform education and grow better citizens.” Matthew Lynch, Ed.D. (@lynch39083), Dean of the School of Education, Psychology, and Interdisciplinary Studies, and an Associate Professor of Education at Virginia Union University, insists that strengthening STEM education is one of six positive trends that are helping to improve K-12 education. He writes, “A greater focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning has been a ‘trend’ for at least the better part of a decade.” He continues:
“Specifically, teachers are looking for innovative ways to deliver STEM material (mobile technology is just one way, virtual science labs are another) and more stringent benchmarks are being created at the local, state and federal level. It is no longer enough for American students to just get by in comparison to each other in STEM subjects; global competition is proving that students in the U.S. need more focus in these subjects to lead the worldwide marketplace as adults.”
As noted above, Lynch identifies five other trends that are strengthening K-12 education; most of those trends involve technology in one way or another, which is another sign of why STEM subjects are important. The next trend identified by Lynch involves mobile devices:
“1. BYOD: This movement which embraces mobile technology through the devices that students already own has already gained momentum in many districts across the country, and it is rapidly moving towards mass adoption. Places like Chesapeake Public Schools are already allowed to use privately owned electronic devices to access the wireless network on the school system’s filtered Internet. In Chesapeake, as in the other public and private schools where BYOD policies exist, students must sign a responsibility form that says they will only use the mobile device for academic enrichment while on school property. Students who bring their own devices into the classroom eliminate the initial costs and are also already comfortable with the technology. The downside of course is that not all students can readily afford such technology, but look for schools to develop technology financial assistance programs for families to help offset the full cost and maintenance of school-owned devices.”
Probably the most ubiquitous device that can be used for personal and educational purposes is the smartphone. There are dozens of educational applications available for smartphones and, of course, they also offer students access to the World Wide Web and all of its educational content. The third trend identified by Lynch involves a trend we are seeing in manufacturing, marketing, and retailing as well as education — personalization.
“2. Customized learning experiences: Self-initiated and self-directed learning experiences are based upon individual needs, preferences and abilities of students who are then the masters of their own success. The traditional way to look at learning is through teachers creating and assigning all work for students in a one-size-fits-all approach. On the flip side, customized learning has the ability to incorporate a variety of resources, such as virtual learning, to aid in the learning process while making it a way for teachers to moderate one-on-one learning experiences in practical ways. I think that the idea of handing control to students is hypothetically frightening to some educators and administrators but once they’ve actually tried it on a small scale, personalized learning actually looks more attractive from an adult’s perspective.”
Customized learning, when combined with the next trend identified by Lynch — online learning — set the stage for what Harvard professor Clayton Christensen (@claychristensen) calls “blended learning.” For more on that subject, read my article entitled “Technology and Education.”
“3. Online learning: Virtual learning is certainly not new to the K-12 scene, but its increasing popularity can’t be ignored. It used to be that online learning was associated only with distance learning, or students who went through the academic process off of school grounds. Today, online learning is more segmented and often just one part of a more traditional learning experience. Virtual learning is no longer all or nothing; it has become mainstream and will continue to transform in-classroom learning.”
Online learning is closely associated with another teaching concept currently under serious consideration — the “Flipped Classroom”. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a “Flipped Classroom,” it is an educational concept in which instruction is delivered online outside the classroom (e.g., at home) and then traditional homework is completed in the classroom under the supervision of a qualified teacher. To learn more about this concept, visit the Knewton website. Lynch’s next trend isn’t really new and, unfortunately does not receive the kind of support it deserves. He writes:
“4. Early education emphasis: Optional preschool is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Research shows that students who start the formal education experience, even one year earlier than Kindergarten, fare better long term in their academic careers. Thirty eight states offer free, voluntary preschool learning programs and nearly 1.6 million low-income families receive assistance from the federal Child Care Development Fund to pursue early childhood education. That fund is just one portion of President Obama’s $75 billion plan to expand early childhood learning in order to give American students a stronger foundation going into Kindergarten. I expect that in the next decade, our terminology will change from K-12 to PK-12 when we talk about student benchmarks.”
To learn more about the importance of early education, read articles entitled “Educating Our Children: The Earlier the Better,” “The Importance of Pre-School,” and “Pre-School Education: Will Congress Invest in Our Children and in America’s Future?” I’ll admit that I didn’t realize that Lynch’s final trend was a trend. He writes:
“5. Outdoor/environmental learning: In short, more schools are looking for ways to get students and teachers outside. We are in an era of experiential learning, so environmental education fits the bill for many students. Lessons in this field teach children an appreciation of the earth and of its resources that the human population is quickly depleting. A better, hands-on understanding of nature also helps with science comprehension and gives students practical learning experiences. Research has also found that teaching outside, even for short stints, improves student attitudes, attendance and overall health. In many schools teachers have always had the freedom to take students outside if they deemed it lesson-appropriate.”
I’m all for ensuring that students are able to make the connection between what they learn in the classroom and what happens outside the classroom. If moving some of the educational experience outdoors (or taking field trips) helps accomplish that then let’s make sure that students are seeing and helping to solve real world challenges.
 Isaac Groves, “Schools work to make STEM learning central to education,” The Times-News, 22 November 2014.
 Matthew Lynch, “6 Trends Improving K-12 Learning Experiences,” Huffington Post The Blog, 23 November 2014.