De-Mystifying STEM Education

This past year, STEM has been on my mind… and I have been so glad to learn the lessons I did from that group of older, wiser teachers.

I spent some time spinning my wheels searching for lesson plans for my boys, their ages (middle and early high school) and their interests. Seems as if, out there on the web, there are lots of clever and fun ideas for early elementary and preschool, and some specialized programming for older children… and plenty of non-profits who will (for a fee) bring a program to your school or community organization provided that your students meet their demographics. But not an abundance of what I was seeking for my boys. Ideally, I’d like a simple, cost-effective series of relevant lessons (not just activities, but those, too) with easy to acquire materials. Not a lot of success.

Next attempt: Find a good comprehensive set of STEM curricular benchmarks and learning standards.

<crickets>

Okay, find any set of STEM learning standards.

Well. 

I will say, I did not come up empty-handed, but I did not come up with what I was after: a standardized set of learning standards addressing STEM for middle school grades.

I paused to consider why.

Let’s think about what STEM learning is: 

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Mathematics

All right. I was starting to see why I wasn’t finding what I was looking for. I was looking for the wrong thing. Let me explain.

Let’s take a look at how those components work together. For this purpose, I’m going to change the order.

  • Science is knowledge we gain through objective observation. 
  • Mathematics is the language we use to express, and work with, much of scientific knowledge.
  • Technology is… tools. Period. Modern technology may differ from that of previous centuries, but it doesn’t take away that technology is about using the best available tools for the job at hand.
  • Engineering… well, this is where it all comes together. Engineering is the practical application of knowledge (science, figured using mathematics), through the use of appropriate tools (technology).
Our trip to the Federal Reserve Bank turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to consider STEM topics in real life applications.

Once I managed that analysis in my head, much of the programming to which I’d been taking my boys came together and made sense to me. It’s not just about having fun building robots; it’s about discussing the science leading to the design of the robots, the logic of programming them to do what you want (or surprising you with something else!), the technology of the machines themselves, and the tasks they’re programmed to do (the practical application, generally on a limited scale). With this in mind, know my boys designed and programmed robots to “run a race” is suddenly a lot closer to the robotic AGVs in the Federal Reserve Banks than I’d realized. 

With this new perspective in mind, I devised a new approach. For my oldest, I did order a pre-designed applied engineering course for his freshmen year of high school. However, for my middle school aged sons, I ordered a bunch of books. I know, (heavy sarcasm here), it’s shocking that a woman who reads as many books as I do reached for more books as a solution. But, I didn’t just select any old books. Rather, we’re going to be exploring the ideas and applications of some of the great scientific minds in our history. I’ll be introducing those books to you over the next few weeks as I plan our learning activities for next year. I invite you to come and explore them with me.