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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PUNCH THE SUN!: Maximizing Your Future Today

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Image: silhouette of a colorguard performer with flag, PUNCHING THE SUN.

This morning, I taught seven eighth-graders–none of whom had ever touched a flag before–how to drop spin.

As everyone in the colorguard world knows (and everyone else can deduce from seeing it done), drop spinning isn’t a World-class skill. In fact, it’s a fundamental. It’s darn near the first thing everyone learns to do with a flag. In the world of colorguard, drop spins aren’t so much PUNCHING THE SUN as they are TAKING A BREATH: you’re gonna do thousands of them just as a basic function.

These kids have a week to go from “never touched a flag before” to “can compete with the veterans in the high school guard” for six open slots on that team.  So why did I start with drop spins?

Simple: It was the ONE element I could teach today that would have the biggest impact on their performance one week from today.

Colorguard instructors put a lot of emphasis on the drop spin because it teaches a lot of fundamentals at once: pacing, hand and arm placement, muscle isolation, and (when done marching or while marking time) hand/eye/foot coordination and rhythm.  It also looks good when it’s together, which is why so many parade routines are centered on it.

Granted: I wrote their parade/tryout routine, so I know that it’s chock-full of drop spins. I’m also choreographing the fall show, so I know they’re going to need the skills drop spins teach.

I’m also not interested in wasting time.

Between coaching colorguard, taking on freelance projects for clients, editing several books a year for Autonomous Press (the first of my 2017 batch, Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamberis out now), writing a novel a year, and spending time with my awesome family, I don’t have a lot of procrastination time. And I don’t get any more time than everyone else gets (believe it or not, I also eat three meals a day, exercise daily, and sleep eight hours a night).

What I’ve learned to do is to use the time I have more efficiently, by asking this one question: What can I do RIGHT NOW that will get me closest to X goal?

“X” is always the goal in question, whether that’s increasing my freelance income, getting a bunch of newbies spinning together, tapping my creativity or expanding my readership. This morning, that was skipping basics like the 27 points in favor of teaching my new colorguard candidates how to drop spin. This afternoon, it’s going to be sitting down and writing a thousand words.

(For authors, “what can I do now that will get me closest to my goal?” is almost always “SIT DOWN AND WRITE.” The fact that “sit down and write” is also the hardest thing we do is not a coincidence.)

For solid long-term growth, start by setting your five-year goal. Write it in present tense: “I make $50,000 per year in book royalties.” “I have an agreement to turn my novel into a film.” “I am the director of a Scholastic Open-class guard that just placed in the top five at Dayton.” Whatever your goal is.

Write it on a Post-It note. Stick it above your desk. Or on your dashboard. Or on your treadmill. Someplace you’re going to see it every day.

When you have to decide how to spend your time–what project to do next, whether to say “yes” to an offer, and so on–ask, “Is this the one thing I can do today that will get me closest to my goal?” If so, get on it.

Ask yourself:

  • “If I could do only one thing today that would get me closer to my goal, would this be it?”
  • “If I can only spend 30 minutes today on my goal, what will get me closest to that goal in that short amount of time?”
  • “If I doubled my goal (make $100,000, turn two novels into films, direct a World class guard, etc.), what one thing today would get me closest to that goal?”

There’s a place in life for Netflix and chill–but to reach your goals, make sure it’s after you’ve done that One Thing.