6.4 Teach Science and Math (STEM)
America’s schools have fallen dramatically behind in the work of preparing students for work in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Despite its high-tech reputation, California students do no better than most in these fields.
This is, to say the least, a multi-faceted challenge.
Math (the “M” in STEM) might be the easiest for schools to make headway with, if only because success is relatively easy to measure. Students can achieve and demonstrate mastery in mathematics by tackling problems at the boundary of their mastery and getting the right answers. Many of the challenges involved in teaching math are human ones, such as recruiting and retaining teachers with the necessary subject knowledge and charisma. Other challenges include presenting the right problem at the right time, explaining difficult concepts clearly and encouraging the student to persist when the work gets hard.
Then again, these challenges might not be strictly “human” after all. The Khan Academy and other online learning platforms are showing great promise precisely because they help students progress right at the boundary of their knowledge and skills. (Endorsement: In April 2011 Khan Academy became a Full Circle Fund grant award recipient.)
Science and engineering education stands to benefit from individualized computer-assisted learning as well, if only because achieving mastery in these fields requires pairing competent instruction with clear problem sets. But there is a difference between reading about spectrography and actually firing up a Bunsen burner to sleuth the elemental content of a mystery substance.
Technology-heavy jobs are hard to characterize. Designing a manufacturing solution, for example, is a task that involves art, craft, teamwork, communication, project management and problem solving. It almost certainly involves use of a spreadsheet. These sorts of varied skills are not easy to introduce without the right tools in the room and a teacher with the right skills.
Some of the people with those skills have gray hair. In California the Encorps Teachers Program recruits experienced science and technology professionals and helps prepare them for a next career in teaching.