The Needs of Future Ready Students
Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic were long considered by schools to be the Core Curriculum, and with good reason. In an agrarian society, at a time when our nation was still developing, and with a relatively small literate population, the most economically and socially responsible thing a state could do is teach the populace to read, write, and compute basic mathematical problems. This education allowed early entrepreneurs, who may have only have had a primary school education, the skills to buy and sell, communicate and consume, and maintain personal and professional financial records. These skills still make up the backbone of a good education, but we are teaching our students to read, write, add, and subtract at earlier ages. So what do we do with our students after they have the ‘Three R’s’? Are they ready to live and compete in a technological and global 21st Century? Simply put… no.
STEM has slowly been creeping into the lexicon of education, and schools are beginning to see value in a STEM-based curriculum, if not complete STEM content courses. True STEM advocates have seen the changing zeitgeist over the years, but as some educators may tell you, schools have a tendency to be reactive to curricular needs, rather than proactive. A student—and a citizen—in the 21st Century will not need the rote memorization and flashcards of their parents’ generation. The facts, figures, factors, and formulas that were once the bane of a student’s social life are now a click away. Students don’t need to learn how many feet are in a mile, or in what year the War of 1812 was fought (Hint: 1812).
Students need to learn the skills to research what they need to know and how to apply what they find. For example, it’s easy to find that the War of 1812 was fought between 1812 and 1815, but the effect of cultural, political, and economic factors as a result of the war are much more important to the growth of the United States. That type of critical thinking is what needs to be fostered within students. We can easily find the Who, What, and Where with an internet search, but the Why and How are much more important and more interesting.
Career Growth in STEM
The 20th Century saw an expansion of vocational training as industrialization and manufacturing fields grew throughout the United States, and now we are seeing a similar trend in STEM fields. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math represent the new burgeoning fields of study. Roughly 20% of all US jobs require some degree of STEM experience (Rothwell, 2013; Brookings), but they do not necessarily require a degree in STEM. The prevalence of STEM-related careers and knowledge is anticipated only to rise in the coming century and we do a disservice to our students if we try to constrain them within an antiquated curriculum and an outdated modality. As teachers, we must provide our students with rich, authentic, engaging, and provocative learning experiences.
Tools for Student Success
STEM education provides students with the tools to explore the world they live in as well as practical life skills applicable in the 21st Century. Math is the “language of the universe” (Galileo), and “science is the poetry if reality” (Dawkins), and technology is the practical, real-world application of math and science to make life easier and more enriching. Technology cannot exist without math and science, but without technology, math and science are conceptual fields that many students struggle to understand.
Context Drives Interest
Good math and science teachers know that some students will resist because they do not enjoy the material or they feel it is too difficult. A student has to buy in to learning before there can be any real knowledge transfer, but if a student is committed to learning there is no stopping that process, no matter how much he or she struggles. All it takes is the right framework; what is referred to Contextualization. The reason students struggle with math and science is because they can’t “see it” and can’t “do it.” Students are not just visual, auditory, or tactile learners. Students learn though a combination of these styles. When teaching styles don’t match the students’ blended learning styles, engagement suffers. Students learn best when they can be engaged both “minds-on” and “hands-on.”
Admittedly, there is a struggle to meet the learning styles of all students at all times, and in a classroom setting this can be difficult. When the learning is extended beyond the walls of the classroom and real-world experience is brought into the classroom, teachers are putting the learning into a “context” that students can experience, manipulate, and interact with.
Modern World Skills
STEM is the practical, hands-on way we want our students to think. It leads to scientifically and mathematically literate students. It provides students the ability to gain and hone critical thinking and problem solving skills that they can use in their lives, their education, and their careers. STEM is the true core curriculum and must be at the heart of teaching and learning in 21st Century education.
Greg Geiger is a Technology Education teacher and Curricular Technology Integration Specialist in the Chicago suburbs. He has taught a wide variety of STEM courses from hands-on shop classes, like auto shop and woodshop, to design and communication classes, like pre-engineering and graphic arts. He also helps teachers incorporate technology into their curriculum to make their classrooms more efficient and effective, from direct technical substitutions for activities teachers are already do, all the way to creating Flipped classroom environments.