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Thoughts About STEM

“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.” 
― Karl R. Popper

STEM is the newest trend of the educational system in the USA. And therefore, it is expected that most countries in the American-influenced world would adopt it.

STEM is the newest trend, but not the first one. Since the 1960’s researchers and educators developed several programs and systems, which in turn were financed, applied and… eventually cancelled. With these programs and systems came kits, tools, books, software, sensors, etc. All of which were designed, produced, and purchased by states, and schools… and abandoned a few years later.    555
   
According to the Occupational Outlook1 Quarterly “STEM workers use their knowledge of science, technology, engineering or math in order to try to understand how the world works and to solve problems.”
Are the components of STEM important? Of course, they are. But for who? Let’s make a parallelization between STEM and musical education.

Nobody, I believe, will deny that musical education for all is important and necessary in order to empower students and explore their personalities and sensibilities. In the same way the themes of STEM may serve to empower all students and explore their personalities.

But almost nobody would declare that the k-12 educational system has to aim to a formation of professional composers and musical performers! In most cases, students with musical talent and 
motivation will be educated after school in private lessons, conservatories, or in special schools dedicated to it.

Applying a similar approach to STEM, the k-12 educational system does not have to orient itself to a formation of professional scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians. Students with STEM talents and motivations, could and should be educated after school in “STEM Centers” or in special schools dedicated to it.

Taking another angle, the argument of channeling children to professions needed by the national economy, transforms students into tools for the economy, and distorts the deep meaning of education, or in the words of John Dewey:
 “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”2

I am not against providing students with knowledge, skills and methods which are the basis of STEM, but this has to be done in flexible contexts, linked to the needs and interest of students as well as the conditions, possibilities and limitations of the teachers and schools.  

Integrative approaches are a great idea, but they have to be truly integrative and not forced. For example, implementation of multidisciplinary programs in primary and middle schools about themes like toys or musical instruments, would probably be closer to the students’ lives. Therefore they might be more relevant and motivational to the vast majority of students than courses about computer sciences or biotechnology.

Another consideration rarely taken by trendy curriculum designers is that each country and every region has its own characteristics and needs.  Therefore, curricula designed for the San Francisco area, such as Robotics, would probably not fit the needs of students in an African or Latino American country.

Another crucial issue for STEM is teacher training. There are many declarations, and very few concrete and research based programs which discuss how to go about it. 

In my experience and opinion, the key to resolve this issue is by team teaching. On the one hand, no single teacher could ever provide all the necessary contents and skills. On the other hand, a group of disciplinary teachers is not a multidisciplinary teaching team. They have to be trained to work as a team by going through and experiencing multidisciplinary activities and by tailoring programs which fit their school environments. In this endeavor, they would also learn to collaborate with teachers of other disciplines i.e. History, Arts, Language, Social Sciences, etc.  
A dogmatic, inflexible, standardized (one size fits all) STEM program, will not help students, teachers and schools, and like previous trends in education, it will also fail. In order to survive and succeed, a clever, flexible, dynamic and evolutionary toolbox has to be developed. To my understanding, the educational and research establishment is yet to confront this challenge.  

Education is a means for people to help people to grow and realize themselves and not a place where we teach STEM.
Let me finalize the subject with another John Dewey’s quotation:
”The aim of education should be to teach us how to think, rather than what to think - to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, rather than to load our memory with the thoughts of other men.”

Oved Kedem , Ph.D

1Occupational Outlook Quarterly • Spring 2014 – p. 5
2The School Journal, Volume LIV, Number 3 (January 16, 1897), pages 77-80.