STEM focus has it backward
By MIKE LEFKOWITZ
Much has been said the past 10 to 15 years in the media, public education forums and government circles about the need to improve student math and science scores so we don’t fall even further behind in international rankings. The word on the lips of all concerned is STEM.
There are two key problems with this acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The first and, perhaps, less significant, is the confusion among some people with stem-cell research. The second problem is the implication that each of the four fields is a stand-alone discipline.
A better way to describe it is to reverse the order of the letters, to make it METS (No, it has nothing to do with baseball; in any case, I’m a Yankees fan). The rationale is to emphasize that a solid math education must come first, that math is essential for students to become engineers, who then develop technology, which enables advances in science. These last three fields, so essential to the future success of the country, cannot thrive without practitioners having a solid math foundation. The importance of a solid mathematics education goes beyond the current conversation of improved proficiency on test scores.
I have used the word mathematics frequently in my education and career but never until recently thought about the actual meaning of the term. I found interesting literal definitions in two ancient languages. In Greek, it is “learning.” In Hebrew, its root is “thinking.”
They tell us that mathematics gives us the critical ability to learn and think logically in any field of education. The skills of learning today are more important than knowledge, which is so readily available on the Internet. To quote the futurist Alvin Toffler, “The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but, rather, those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
A solid foundation in mathematics and science develops and hones the skills of posing hypotheses, designing experiments and controls, analyzing data, recognizing patterns, seeking evidence, conclusions and proof, solving problems and seeking absolutes, while being open to new information. Studying mathematics not only will develop more engineers and scientists, but also produce more citizens who can learn and think creatively and critically, no matter their career fields. The workforce of tomorrow, in all fields, will demand it.
Teaching methods used today stress memorization and the use of calculators. Students are taught by rote instead of analyzing and understanding, with the primary focus placed on test scores. Test scores are essential but not sufficient. If we believe that the objective of a quality education for our children is to develop the skills associated with learning and thinking, we need to do more.
First, incentives are needed to attract and retain top high school and college students, passionate about math and science, to become teachers. This will require higher pay and public recognition. We must get away from the “all teachers are created equal” syndrome. The education system is competing with private industry for top young technical talent, and it must do something to respond.
Second, new and innovative teaching programs need to be implemented, integrating available technology to stimulate students’ creativity, imagination and confidence. They need more hands-on and contextual learning in order to spark their curiosity and enjoyment of learning.
A number of such programs have been developed by nonprofit organizations in Orange County and are being utilized by elementary and middle schools. For example, the MIND Research Institute has developed a unique math learning curriculum, which has been recognized nationally with close to 500,000 students across the country benefiting from it. The curriculum is based on computer games and visual learning, with students progressing at their own pace.
Another such organization is Science@OC, which partners with Orange County public school educators to develop science-literate students through inquiry-based instruction – an approach that puts a major emphasis on hands-on lab work – the cool stuff that ignites a passion for understanding how the physical world works.
These organizations and many others in Orange County are making a difference at a critical time.
America needs to move decisively, quickly, creatively and effectively to prepare our students with 21st century METS skills before we lose a generation that has become incapable of competing in a global economy.
Mike Lefkowitz is president of The Semel Group, a consultancy for businesses and nonprofits.