Wednesday, May 21, 2014

STEAM- New Buzzword, or Game Changer

In the fall of 2014, I was hired as our district’s STEAM coordinator. As May of the previous school year comes to a close, I find myself in front of my science classroom for the last time. I was trying to explain to them that they would have someone else teaching them AP Physics next year as I was taking on curriculum duties as our STEAM coordinator. I will never forget that look of confusion on their faces in part because after I tried to explain the acronym, I found that same look painted across my face.

I got nervous fast. While I was jacked to be starting this new journey as our district’s STEAM expert, I couldn't deny that a part of me had no clue what I was getting into.

I had a problem. What exactly is STEM? And where the hell did this A come from?

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, that is STEM, or at least was my definition at the time. I was a physics teacher, highly respected in my field, and very successful with students. I had to be doing this already, didn't I? Science is in fact the first letter, that had to mean something…. there was math in physics, and engineering and technology too! I had this locked, no problem.

Then I started to think about it some more. What exactly is science? The running definition in my head was that it was a method for understanding the world around us. It began with a research question then utilized data to find relationships between variables. There were graphs, equations, definitions, and statistical significance that led us to understanding how we evolve, or how stars blow themselves up. Science was my bread and butter. Toss me a scientific law and BAM I am there with a fifteen minute lecture... Dalton's Laws- no problem, Newton's equation- cake walk, anthropic principle- I can dig it. If it is one thing I am comfortable with, it's science. Bring it on, STEM, I got your first letter locked!


I had a professor once tell me that a chalkboard is technology. It is a device used to help us. So is a broom, and a telescope, and a computer. Everyone gets so caught up in tablets, apps, presentation software, and smartphones, that they seem to miss out on what technology really is. A rock was technology a couple million years ago when you wanted to open a coconut. Learning technology is about troubleshooting a device to make it work for you better or more efficiently. It is not only computers, it is about sharpening that rock.

If the rock doesn't work, bash the coconut against a tree. Now you are talking like an engineer. If science starts with a research question, engineering starts with a need to be addressed. How similar is that?! Engineers solve problems, they make our lives better. They develop technology, sometimes to answer a scientific question (oh the connections). There are construction engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, aerospace engineers, and even food engineers. They see problems and they solve them. They may be putting men on the moon, or just giving them something to drink while up there (I am looking at you Tang).

A friend of mine from a close university, a physicist no doubt, once told me that we should not bother teaching high school students science. He said that is easy. We should be teaching them more math and some computer coding. Those, he said, were the language of science. If a student came to him at University not understanding the Law of Partial Pressures, he could probably talk them through it. However, without math skills, and to an extent coding, he couldn't even hold a conversation with them. Math was the language of science. Graphing, equations, statistics, and probability were essential in all disciplines of science. Without a firm understanding of math, a science lecture may as well be spoken in Greek.

So what is STEM? I think it depends on who you are talking too. To an educator, we are looking to mold students into thinkers, innovators…. the superhero leaders of tomorrow’s industry. We are striving for another (or first) Tony Stark, or would even settle for a genius super villain engineer. We know that technological innovation and advancing science will drive our nation’s economic growth and keep us competitive globally. We want to prepare students for fields that are not even invented yet. We crystal ball a future where workers use the letters in our acronym consistently and interchangeably to solve our world's problems. We have growing problems of not enough space on this rock, fewer and fewer resources and energy. We know in the back of our minds that the human race can not continue to expand at the rate we are making babies without altering the ways in which we do things. The problems will be there, we just don't know what they are right now.

Industry has a different definition. They could care less about the future; they need workers right now. They need problem solvers in jobs they can’t fill today. They need workers with technical skills, math ability, troubleshooting experience, and work ethic. They need employees who can work in a team, towards a goal. They need a workforce with STEM skills.

Surprisingly, politicians and lawmakers actually find themselves more in line with educators on this, at least to the extent of agreeing on the goal of STEM. They see it as a pathway to economic growth and global competitiveness. Sometimes their policies don’t quite match with an educator’s goals, but their intentions are at least blatant.  

Then there is the A…. Where did the A come from? If STEM was not enough, we are adding the Arts into the soup. Pushed by the Rhode Island School of design, this capital A is probably the my biggest worry. I sat in a lecture last year at our state science conference where a professor did a study of Nobel Prize winners and other various intellectuals. As it turns out most of the great thinkers of our age were very vested in some kind of art or design field. It was the first time I had heard of STEAM. To me, the fact that Einstein played a violin doesn't hold a lot of validity in an argument for including the arts in STEM. Then a few weeks ago I was introduced to the Wallet Project out of Stanford’s college of design. First off, I didn't even realize that any college of design actually exist. Once I left the workshop, my perfectly designed foam wallet in pocket, there was no doubt in my mind that design and the arts are an integral part of innovation.

So here I sit, trying to piece all this together into what STEAM means to me, to my district, the teachers I work with, and the students I work for. Putting the pieces together reveals a picture that is both grand and awe-inspiring. The theme of innovation is interwoven through problem solving by design. Using complex skills, content, and processes our students will someday move this world forward. It is our job to prepare them for what is out there for them right now as well as what has not been thought of yet.

STEAM is a buzzword. It's a pathway toward funding, resources, and a link from schools to industry. It is all-encompassing, and yet strictly defined by a set of principles. Many I speak with say we are already doing these things; we just have not labeled it with this decade's lingo. I believe that is true to an extent, but the doors an acronym can open are extensive.

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