On the Road to Improving STEM Education

Since 1988 I have made my living as a mathematics educator. One consequence of this career choice is experiencing firsthand how the adult population in the United States divides itself into two groups – those who “love mathematics” and those who “do not do math.” At work, at cocktail parties, on airplanes, on the sideline of soccer games, even in job interviews, the vast majority of people identify themselves to me as in one camp or the other. As I gained in experience as a math teacher, I learned the importance of this social dynamic in my work in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Education.

For instance, on back-to-school night one parent always says, “I hope there isn’t going to be a quiz.” I learned to anticipate this moment and track the eyes that looked fearfully in my direction during the nervous laughter. These were the parents who had difficulty in school math, and perhaps, impart subtle messages to their children about mathematics. Subtle messages, but messages that make it a little bit more difficult for children to be confident, to dig deeper, and therefore unintentionally push them in the direction of becoming one of those adults who “does not do math.” The parents of these children helped me recognize the need to help students to build a strong mathematical identity.

In recalling these experiences I wish to highlight the social obstacle to successful STEM Education that this situation creates – a society where mathematical and scientific literacy are considered a choice. As someone who believes that math, science, and technology are everywhere — almost every part of our daily experiences is engineered in some way — I think it is critically important for all children to grow up with an identity that helps them to see STEM subjects as opportunities to make life more fun and interesting.

STEM Heroes and Heroines at the National Science and Engineering Festival

With this goal in mind I recently visited Washington DC to attend the National Science and Engineering Festival (NSEF). Lockheed Martin was the primary sponsor of this wonderful event on the National Mall. The NSEF was exciting and exhilarating – and a chance to see kids in action as they played STEM. Children test drove space vehicles, stared in awe as a “mad scientist” drove a giant solar powered mechanical spider the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and learned how STEM professionals study and describe both everyday and unseen things in our world.

eatART Foundation’s Mondo Spider

As I explored the exhibits for two days I learned an incredible amount about science and engineering – it is amazing what you can learn while engaging with people who are passionate about their work. I was in awe of the STEM heroes and heroines presenting at each exhibit – with Michigan Tech’s Mind Trekkers deserving special mention.

Michigan Tech’s Mind Trekkers Demonstrating oobleck Solution

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TudhygHVJ6k&feature=player_embedded

I also thought a lot about what it will take to prepare an entire generation of young people to come of age with such passion for and interest in STEM subjects. The National Science and Engineering Festival was a great catalyst, but more is needed. I will write more about this topic in the coming weeks.

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