Monday, January 30, 2012

STEM Products vs. Process

Straight from the top, I can tell you that I love it when my kids think like scientists.  And while scientists don't always share the same language as engineers, they use many of the same practices.   They generate an idea, they try to test for the idea, and they try to adapt the idea.   While engineering goes further than science does in its application, ICLE would call engineering a Quadrant D application of a scientific concept.

The difference here is critical.   Scientists are trying to generalize an idea by looking for models and patterns, and engineers are trying to develop the general idea into a specific application or direction.  This language became separated as we spoke of inquiry in the original science standards, and led to separate technology standards for the 'tech prep' arena of a decade or two ago.   Elementary science started developing kit science (FOSS, VAST) while high schools began looking at models, Iowa career and tech education developed separate standards, the first career academies flourished, and we started duplicating efforts all over the place in Iowa Schools.

While I believe in spiraling curriculum, sometimes we have been so quick to jump on a program bandwagon that we lose sight of the overarching ideas.   Spiraling tech ed, science, and agriculture should be intentional.  Instead, after personally teaching in seven different districts (yikes!) I have often seen underutilized, if not wasted, resources.   Back in the early nineties, one district spent $30000 on a curriculum for Principles of Technology that served 12 kids per year while the high school science budget for a high school of 300 was $200/year.   Another nineties district in which I taught poured money into its AP curriculum while the business teacher had difficulty getting replacement ribbons for typewriters.   By the end of the decade, I had moved into teaching in a school that had CORD curricula and a CISCO Academy, but no plan on how to build capacity in case a teacher left.  The cycle appears to repeat every ten to fifteen years with the latest and greatest program.

It's not that I am personally against any of these initiatives; I'm not.   I've taught CORD curriculum, I've been an instructor in a local Kirkwood academy, and served for many years as a technology director. If we had unlimited resources, I would love to have all sorts of great curriculum options without financial restraint. Unfortunately, we are bound by the limitations of our checkbooks, and we often jump on-board to new ideas without looking for a cost-benefit ratio.  Not all STEM initiatives are equal, but just as true, not all classes cost the same to teach.  Were all of these STEM initiatives well-meaning?  Absolutely!  Well-planned and executed, including stakeholders from CTE, science, and technology integration?  Probably not.

That leads to one simple conclusion:  It's not about the program. It's about the process.    Districts need to define the skills they want their kids to be able to have to be successful in the local economy, in the state of Iowa, and indeed, in the global economy.  And then they need to invest in their teachers to develop those skill sets as practitioners. 

Based on that criteria, we might look at what's already working for almost nothing.  Local districts might consider an investment of $1000 towards a Lego League using the Lego NXT robotic controller, especially considering the payoff of last year's Ames' Girl Scout troop prosthetic hand invention.   Open-source environments like SCRATCH programming or Kodu  teach coding and problem-solving in game-centered environments without exorbitant yearly fees.  These efforts are also STEM-driven, but they require the teacher to develop the rigor and the relevance.   This difference focuses on people, rather than technology, because regardless of the rigor of a curriculum, it is only as good as the pedagogical practices of the instructor.

Perhaps the best piece of reform on the spectra of STEM efforts in the last five years is the development of the science writing heuristic.  Rather than spending money on a canned set of widgets, teachers are given professional development to learn about practices of science and engineering, applied to all the processes that go on in a normal classroom.   It's holistic, and kids develop habits of mind that are beneficial everywhere, including engineering.   These skills include reflection, backing claims with evidence, and negotiation and collaboration.  Students are writing to learn, and gathering data in ways that meet their individual insights and illustrate their understandings.  The rigor and relevance are demonstrated by students using the method to show their understanding, and by the reflective educator who is able to unpack misconceptions in the areas of conceptual science and engineering.

As the nextGen Science Framework hints, we are closer now to teaching kids about BOTH science and engineering, and the Framework replaces vague definitions of 'inquiry' with 'practices of scientists and engineers.'   In this soon-to-be-released set of standards, those practices appear to be an integral discussion.   Wise practitioners and curriculum leaders would do well to discuss these standards with all stakeholders in the building, so we can spiral effectively towards helping students learn those skills of problem-solving, creativity, and analysis in ALL our classrooms.


  1. Marcia, I agree wholeheartedly. I would add just one piece to the following statement: "This difference focuses on people, rather than technology, because regardless of the rigor of a curriculum, it is only as good as the pedagogical practices of the instructor."

    Those pedagogical practices must show increased relevance. To reach the point of increased rigor you must increase the relevance.


  2. Robb, increased relevance means a focus on teaching people in ways that tap their understandings. The NAP publication, "How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School" should be a good starting point, as are student-centered learning and Gradual Release of Responsibility trainings.

    In your particular area of online learning, student-centered teaching is the goal. This is why turning someone loose to be an online learning teacher without an extensive teaching toolkit and training is a bad idea. Those skills of developing the teacher are the real power in the shift in education that is coming. Otherwise, online class are just a digital encyclopedia. And encyclopedia have never been the value-added teaching experience individuals crave.