Are We Doing STEM Teaching All Wrong?

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When I was in high school, 20-odd years ago, I remember hearing a family friend say that “our schools are preparing kids for the best jobs of thirty years ago.”

It was, of course, not a compliment.

It’s also not entirely untrue. The statistics in this article are sobering – less than a third of high school students nationwide graduate at grade level proficiency in reading and math, while just over a quarter manage to complete the 4-year degree that 93 percent of them say they’re after. Career and tech ed may not be providing actual job skills.

Preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet is a challenge. After all, 20 years ago when I was sitting in high school English classes, my current means of making money – writing tech content – didn’t exist.

In 2009, when I started writing content, the job was radically different than it is today. Back then, repeating “panda underwear” 500 times was the guaranteed way to show up first on a Google search for panda underwear. Today, the best way to do it would be to turn out consistently interesting 1500+ word articles on pandas, underwear, and the myriad connections between the two.

In response to the fact that it’s tough to prepare anyone for jobs that don’t exist, many schools have turned to simply shoving kids toward STEM classes and careers. “Go into STEM,” is the advice. “Learn to code. Get interested in tech.”

Okay, but why?

It reminds me of the dot-com bubble that hit just as I was leaving high school: if it had “.com” in its name, folks were lining up to throw money at it, certain that it would be the next huge thing. It had to be, right? It had “.com” right there in the name!

I see the schools I coach for treating STEM education much the same way. Don’t ask if it’s a viable business model; don’t ask if it’s at all interesting or relevant to their actual lives; just throw the kids in that general direction and everything will be fine.

Fast-forward to today, in which I just spent a few hours writing 1500+ well-researched, consistently interesting words on the use of technology to improve agility in the insurance industry.

My takeaway point after reading thirty or forty articles on insurtech and agility:

The tech itself won’t save you. The tech itself won’t do anything. The tech is a tool you use to get where you wanted to go in the first place.

And I’m wondering: What are we doing by pushing kids toward tech – and STEM in general – without showing them how to figure out where they want to go in the first place?

I had this problem myself as a teenager.

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As a kid, I owned an Apple IIGS. If you booted the IIGS without a floppy in the drive, it’d kick you directly to a blue screen of death with a warning message and a little flashing cursor.

The little flashing cursor would run anything you instructed it to, as long as you did so in BASIC.

For years I hated the blue screen of death and the little flashy cursor. Sure, I knew BASIC, but I didn’t know what I could do with BASIC. I’d been taught to use BASIC to program computers to solve math problems, which held less than no interest for me, since it was faster to solve the math problems on my own than it was to type a set of instructions to do it. Back then, I only knew I had to shut down the whole machine and restart it (a process that took approximately six geological ages) because I had forgotten to put the disk in the drive before I hit the on switch.

Then one day, when I was 13 or so, I realized: I could use BASIC to write text adventure games.

And I was hooked.

Throwing me in the general direction of the tech did not help; my IIGS was just a clunky gaming system to me. Throwing me in the general direction of coding classes did not help; BASIC was just a more elaborate way to do something I could do more easily in my head.

Nobody asked what I was interested in. Nobody ever thought to show me, the kid who regularly got yelled at for reading and writing fiction while she was supposed to be programming, that the technology could be used to do what I was clearly already into.

It wasn’t until I learned on my own that I could use these tools to do something I was already interested in that I even began to care about coding…and by then, I had so thoroughly associated coding with “useless tasks you are made to do by adults who don’t want you doing what you are interested in” that I never did pursue it any further.

So here’s my question: Why do we still throw kids at the tools?

Why aren’t we throwing the tools at the kids?

Why aren’t we encouraging kids to try everything they can during their teen years, so they can learn what they do and don’t like, and then showing them which tools can help them tackle both fun and not-fun tasks more efficiently?

I’m seeing a great many app developers take this approach. MIT’s Scratch assumes that kids like cartoons and shiny objects, then uses that as a way to encourage coding: here’s how to put the building blocks together to make the cute sprites do what you want. Soundation leverages an interest in music to teach basic theory in a similar way.

But I’m still seeing schools push “tech! STEM! coding!” with zero sense of application or purpose. It’s like watching teachers tell kids to “take a screwdriver class” or “get really into chainsaws.”

Sure, those tools are great – but very few people make chainsaws their life’s work. Most people are into chainsaws for what they can do. They’re into chainsaws because the chainsaw is, somehow, relevant to their interests or passions. It’s not “a thing you do,” it’s a way forward.

And if “showing kids the way forward” isn’t the definition of “teaching for the future,” it should be.

Image credit: jarmoluk at Pixabay; AppleIIHistory.org


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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer with a decade of experience and a passion for creating new things. As Verity Reynolds, Dani is the author of the Non-Compliant Space series Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/verityreynolds
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