Is STEM the only thing?

2016-Sep-10_FiddleBanjo2016_1362Is STEM the only thing? I’m asking for a friend.

It occurs to me that in the rush to turn out worker bees for business sectors, the focus in education is more than a little skewed in favor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yes, these are all important studies and part of a well-rounded balanced education. However, I am questioning that the focus on STEM has over-shadowed other content and curricula that, in my biased opinion, should be equally important.

Because I see education in terms of an avenue toward a pursuit, observing the march of the bureaucrats toward the next great crisis in education is equally frustrating and alarming. Our educational goal should be to “hook” students into becoming life-long students, to foster curiosity and questioning and the drive to know more.

And maybe that pathway toward becoming lifetime learners is through a STEM discipline, and perhaps it is not.

As a student, my personal pathway into learning was through something quite different. I was a more-than-adequate reader, not a particularly skilled writer, and a horribly incompetent math student.  What fired me up to become more disciplined about learning and more successful as a student, was a love and pursuit of music. The irony of this statement is that, as an adult, music has taken a backseat to the very disciplines that catch all the attention today – technology and mathematics.

To me, it is more important to teach students to think critically, to process logically and, yes, even scientifically. Science, math, and technology are important and great ways to get to those problem-solving and thinking skills. But other disciplines can be a means to this end – and toward the goal of fostering and enduring desire to learn – too. And for the student whose interest in learning lies in arts and humanities, exclusion of such pursuits leave them flat.

So while our education policy makers direct a refocus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I hope there might also be a similar pursuit of arts and humanities. Because, in my opinion, there is a need to balance educational pursuits across all disciplines.

Return to Sender

Leafmatter5

Educators, if you received a free and unsolicited book in the mail, would you read it? That’s what a conservative “climate realist” group by the name of Heartland Institute wants you to do. In fact, it would be really swell if teachers would do a little more than just read their free book(s). If you would also start teaching some of their conceptions and beliefs, that would be great.

Here’s an introduction to this Heartland Institute courtesy of Dean Reynolds’ report on April 22 CBS News.  There among the reported 97% of scientists who believe global warming is real, is non-scientist Joseph Bast claiming that global warming is not only part of the cycle of life on Planet Earth, but actually desirable for us humans (see video link above).

Bast, CEO and President of Heartland Institute, is admittedly not a scientist; what he claims to be is a “climate realist”. Here are some of the ideas Heartland Institute champions:

  • Second hand smoke, smoking, and lung cancer have no connections
  • Global warming is not a “thing” – it is more like a cycle of nature and “cold weather kills more people than warm weather does.” (refer to clip at 1:15 mark)
  • In Education, the group supports the increasing charter schools, providing education tax credits for private school students, vouchers and the group supported the parent “trigger” reform started in California.
  • Health care saving accounts and a “free market” health care system, and (finally)
  • Hydraulic fracking

Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, Heartland Institute is engaged in a concerted effort to influence science educators in Grades K-12. As such, this group has committed to mailing 25,000 copies of a free book (Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming authored by Craig Idso, PhD; Robert M. Carter, PhD; and S. Fred Singer, PhD) and DVD every two weeks until every single K-12 Science teacher in the United States has a copy (reported total 200,000 copies). Lennie Jarrett, who manages Heartland Institute’s Center for Transforming Education, includes a cover letter (please read it here).

Now everyone is entitled to an opinion, but if one is going to flood schools with science materials, shouldn’t those materials be…. scientific? As in something that is based upon proven and replicable fact and not on opinion? Bast and Heartland Institute hope that science educators will have some doubts about that. After all, 3% of the scientific community don’t agree on the cause(s) for climate change.

From time to time, entities offer curriculum and materials to schools and educators for free or reduced costs. The utilities companies used to send Lenny Lightbulb coloring books to elementary school teachers who requested them. Apple Computers became prevalent technology in schools because Apple targeted the education market and offered deep discounts.

 

As a teacher, presenting opposing opinions on issues should be part of the educational process. When proven and science-based facts are replaced by flimsy opinions of “think tanks” with a political agenda, that is not science. Here’s a second viewpoint detailing why the Heartland Institutes’ effort is alarming written by NY Times Op-Ed writer, Curt Stager.

That’s a gift that should be returned to sender.

We Reap What Ed. Policy Has Sown

So this week’s head-scratching story of Ahmed Mohamed and his engineering project, a clock, brings us to the” why”.  As in why didn’t anyone recognize the use of a circuit board to make a clock in a high school engineering project.  IMG_1530

There are, of course, the deeper, darker parts of this story. Prejudice, poor judgements, all had a large role in this student’s treatment. Deny if you must, but had this object been a real incendiary device, the school would have evacuated immediately without waiting around for someone to make a definitive call on what it was.

But there is, for me another undercurrent that impacted this event.  Why didn’t the school, i.e., the teacher, recognize that this was not a bomb, that it was a physical science/engineering project?

For most of the last 20 years that I taught in public schools, science was not part of the school day.  That’s right – no time for science. Or social studies. Several years ago, there was a superintendent in my school district who told us to teach science through reading. Seriously. Sorry kids, no explorations for you.

Time in the day that might have been spent teaching science or social studies was allocated to improving reading, writing, and math scores. Or test preparation.  To be fair, districts have begun to recognize that teaching science and social studies is essential to a good education and so, for the last 2 years, we have had district mandates for including actual science and social studies (experiments, labs, simulations – not “just reading about it”). Schools struggle to incorporate STEM and STEAM and social studies into school days, but the damage of ignoring these subjects has already been done.

Is there any question that, after 20 years of being ignored, our students – some of whom are now teachers – don’t have a basis in science to recognize when a clock is just a clock?

Cramming or Happiness?

I can’t be alone in thinking that this stretch of the academic year could be better used.  We have been practicing for state tests, administering state tests, and administering district assessments since March. Here we are 2 months later getting ready for the next round of state assessment and end-of-year assessments.

If you are ready to say “uncle”, raise your hand.

Recently I heard suggestion made that we should “double up” on our mathematics instruction so the students would have more math exposure ahead of the MCAS.  Think about that for a moment.

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Exploring erosion with a stream table.

I enjoy math and I actually enjoy TEACHING math. But I don’t think force-feeding math standards down kid’s throats in anticipation of state math assessments is good for anyone. Remember college and cramming for a final? Well, this is just as effective, except the people cramming are 10 years old.

What makes my students happy and excited these days is science.  So far I’ve been able to resist the suggestion to bag science instruction and cram for a math test.  I’ll continue to do this even in the face of state testing and suggestions that my class is “behind” the district schedule. Why? Because for some of my students, it is the highlight of their day.

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Standardizing stream table variables.

Why does school need to be so full of drudgery and test preparation and sticking to artificial schedules that do not reflect developmental learning? Ten year olds need to be filled with the excitement of discovering something new, of making sense of something; they need to learn to love learning. And if that something is science (or math, or reading or writing), then that’s where we will be going.

Learning should be happiness.

Seeds of Science

A few weeks ago, the District trained all 3rd and 4th grade teachers on a new science program that is being initiated here in Lowell. The logistics of revising an already tight schedule to include a new program with some pretty hefty time requirements has been nightmarish to say the least. It hasn’t helped much that the administrator who successfully advocated for this program is no longer part of the Central Office administration.  It also has been received less-than-enthusiastically because of timing: adding in a new program when we have major curriculum overhauls in English Language Arts and Mathematics (Common Core!) while we straddle the former frameworks makes everyone cranky.

However, yesterday my students were involved in a soil experiment that has made all the angst over getting this off the ground feel worth it.

Looking for the unexpected

As typically happens when implementing a new program, you read it once, read it again, and still miss something. At least I had remembered to gather leaf matter from my backyard for the student observation. But as it was 6:30 and I was on my way to school, I just picked up what I could from the side of my driveway. To me, it just looked like a bunch of dead red maple leaves – nothing too interesting to observe and record.

Well, were we all in for a surprise.  Table by table, each group discovered not only leaves (and a few sticks), but BUGS! Spiders, beetles, bug casings — the whole gamut. And were the kids ever excited! “This is the best day of my whole life,” one of my less-academically inclined students yelled.  I think I would agree.

I never know just how valuable, exciting, and wonderful a lesson is until it gets rolled out in front of the students. All that hand wringing? Worth it.

The challenge of teaching science topics

So many years ago I don’t even remember the exact year, I participated in a summer institute in Boston. That’s where I learned a lot about engaging kids through thematic science teaching; one of the best things I learned about was 321 Contact. Sadly this show’s run ended in the early 90s.

It was at the institute that I first saw a 321 Contact Special about the rain forest and biodiversity.   It was so impressive that I bought the video and boy, am I ever happy that I did.  I’ve shown this video in my classroom nearly every academic year and it never, ever has lost the ability to engage kids in learning about biodiversity and the importance of preserving earth’s resources.

Yesterday, as I watched the video with my students, there was another, even more relevant segment on the video — the impact of excessive carbon dioxide on our planet and the resulting warming. That’s right…. a video from the 1990s explaining Global Warming. I don’t know whether to be excited or frightened.

Or maybe saddened. Our students don’t get enough exposure to science. Including science activities in the day becomes more of an afterthought and time for something more than superficial background knowledge has to be carved out of a thoroughly packed day of mathematics and language arts.

This is wrong. Somehow incorporating science into my curriculum needs to be rethought and refocused on. Science is more than (as one superintendent wanted us to do) reading about it through small group instruction.