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The Reality of STEM in the Classroom

The Reality of STEM in the Classroom

Victoria Lovejoy | Teaching

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. Educators, legislators, and business leaders have long been concerned with the state of science and mathematics in our schools. In a comparison of international scores for 4th and 8th graders, results show that the American students are still lagging behind our major global competitors including Japan, China, Russia, and Singapore (TIMMS 2007). As these countries outcompete us in academic assessments, they are also outcompeting us in capturing the global markets particularly in the area of information management.

The purpose of STEM initiatives at the national, state, and local levels is to bring together the resources of government in support of improving our educational system, the private sector in making alliances to support authentic learning applicable to what is needed in the workforce, and educational institutions in collaborating on the best pedagogy and curricula to develop students who are prepared to meet the challenges of their futures. This initiative is applicable not only to the disciplines of science and math, but to all other disciplines as teachers continue to develop a 21st century approach through cross-curricular integration. In real world work and interactions, we don’t have clear cut divisions between disciplines. Learning through STEM gives students tools to develop creative and systemic problem solving, collaborative networks, leadership abilities, and long-term strategic outlooks.

This all sounds terrific and on-point, but what is the reality we each experience back in our classroom? At a recent department chair meeting, our assistant head passed on a parent request that we teach more specifically to the SATs so that our students can earn the numbers they need to get into some of the colleges they want. Among the department chairs, we all agreed that our focus in the classroom certainly included foundational skills but our goal was to prepare our students to be the independent thinkers and problem solvers described in current literature and certainly included in the STEM initiatives. By the times students reached our high school classes we all felt that the we did not have extra time to teach to a standardized exam. But we are in many ways also a service industry so that if colleges need a “number” through which to filter applicants and parents expect us to get their children into colleges and those same colleges require a certain score on a standardized test, where do we spend our energies?

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Clearly, this opens up all the old discussions and heated arguments we have about standardized testing and student evaluation. However, the reality when we are in our classrooms is that we are often torn between teaching lifelong skills for the future and teaching the “tricks” a student needs to score well on a test that may determine their future. Certainly there is overlap. We can teach critical reading skills and information filtering while we work on reading comprehension. We can develop foundational math skills in the context of higher order problem solving. We can decode the cues and clues embedded in tests and which can help us select the right answer as well as learn subtleties of communication. But can we really serve two masters – standardized test mastery and 21st century lifelong skills?

The reality in our classrooms as we make our way through another academic year does not always match the vision that many of us continue to carry in our minds for education. The answer, for now, is what it has always been – dedicated teachers doing their best to support the development of those skills that will best support lifelong learning and success and throwing in a few test-taking strategies to help our students jump through the hoops. It is not a perfect system but if we can keep the talk going maybe we’ll get everyone on the walk!

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, 2007. http://nces.ed.gov/timss/table07_1.asp retrieved May 24, 2009

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