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Monday, 14 July 2014 17:00

Rethinking STeM Education Featured

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Rethinking STeM Education

No, that is not a typo.

The reason I opted for a lowercase 'e' in the acronym that is commonly used for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education (or STEM for short) is that engineering is the one subject that is so commonly neglected in every talk about preparing future STEM workers.

As I'm stuck in the Denver Airport, I finally have some time to read this month's Mechanical Engineering magazine. There's a fascinating set of soundbites from a recent roundtable discussion about STEM education. Let me preface this article by saying that I have nothing against science, technology, or mathematics. I have a math degree, have published papers in scientific journals, and am a confirmed technophile. My problem is that engineering --something so crucial to our everyday lives-- is so thoroughly overlooked in the K-12 classroom.

According to Dr. Ioannis Miaoulis, "The U.S. curriculum we teach today was decided in 1893 by the Committee of 10 at Harvard University. They left engineering out because, in 1893, most engineering was agricultural engineering and kids grew up on farms and were learning it at home. So they issued the report and the curriculum has never been touched. So now, kids spend endless time learning how many legs a grasshopper has, but they have no clue how a faucet works, how a car runs, or how a plane flies... [I would] teach it from first grade all the way up to high school."

Consider the implications of an educational system that puts all of the freight on ideas like volcanoes, marine biology, or planets but then ignores basic concepts like gears, fuses, and airfoils. As a recent engineering graduate, I had a reasonably typical (or even above-average) educational experience. However, I had virtually no exposure to any engineering until college. I could tell you about the tongue map or migratory patterns of birds but I was completely clueless about the world that was 10 feet from me. I was a mechanical engineer who -- I am embarrassed to say -- did not understand how a differential works until my junior year of college.

It seems like a common strategy today for teaching STEM is to buy a bunch of iPads and then tout your district as being progressive for hooking kids on technology. (Here is an example from earlier this month.) Understand that I am an Apple hipster: I liked Apple before Apple was cool. I had a Mac Plus and a Performa as a kid. I also currently have an iPad, iPod, and two MacBooks. The most brilliant aspect of the iPad, however, is you don't need to rub more than five neurons together in order to use it. It is an ingenious piece of technology, to be sure, but it is incapable of educating about technology because it does all of the thinking for you. Now there are a few educational apps that work well at the elementary level, but relying on this is using technology to learn rather than actually learning about technology.

How can we transform STeM education into STEM education? While there can be no singular solution, a good start would be to rethink the tools that we are using. Were I in charge of a school district, I would take the money budgeted for iPads and I would instead buy some Raspberry Pi'sArduinos, and a few 3D printers. In case you aren't familiar: a) a Raspberry Pi is a small credit-card sized computer that runs a bare-bones version of Linux, b) an Arduino is a small micro-controller that basically offers a programmable set of sensors and switches, and c) 3D printers are devices that can take a computer designed 3D object and then print out a plastic version that can be physically handled.

The difference between these items and the aforementioned iPad is that they do not work "out of the box". You must learn Linux or C or Ohm's Law or CAD software in order to use them. But, by using these tools, you actually do learn valuable technical skills. The lack of knowledge becomes an obstacle that must be overcome in order to accomplish something cool, and using knowledge to build something new is what engineering is all about.

I am not the only one who thinks that iPads are insufficient for promoting technology: the LA school district recently abandoned plans to give every child an iPad, opting instead for laptops. I think that this is a step in the right direction, but simply having access to a laptop does not imply that kids are being educated any more than having an iPad does. This brings me to my final point.

In order to truly teach students about technology, the kids must have some ownership in the creation, setup, and maintenance of this technology; and they should be required to participate in some of the creative struggle to master it. Some might argue, "If the student has ownership over the technology, what will keep them from using that technology inappropriately?" I understand that equipping children with the freedom and know-how to literally do anything is bound to invite concerns about the use of this knowledge. However, if that is the cost of igniting a passion to build and discover, then it is a risk our society must take.

In order to train up a new generation of engineers, our school system has the (admittedly difficult) task of fostering curiosity, and this should be the over-arching goal that motivates every policy related to STEM education.

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