A side of Critical Thinking with that STEM Please.

2 Feb

I’ve been thinking about my Quaker education lately. It wasn’t perfect, but it came really, really close as far as I’m concerned.

I was never a “good girl” or an A+ student with a perfect academic record. My  junior year English teacher even wrote on my report card that I was demonstrating “anti-intellectual behaviors”. I broke school rules, violated dress codes, and generally did my best to rebel, and yet somehow…

I graduated from school believing that I had a voice in this world and knowing that my actions mattered and that they could help or harm a community. I left knowing that risk taking was not only acceptable, but necessary if I wanted to make an impact or experience a rich life. I valued compassion, tolerance, and difference and I had a sense of civic duty. I understood that there were consequences to all actions. I left hungry for knowledge and eager to explore my areas of interest.

In classes, I learned to write well enough to test out of the freshman writing course deemed mandatory by my college, and I didn’t have to retake any math courses. So I guess, from a curricular standpoint, I was also well prepared for college.

There was a culture of communal responsibility and of collaboration in my school. We were in it together and we wanted each other to succeed. Adults on campus consistently modeled positive behaviors over the years. They challenged my ideas and they pushed me to take risks and to go beyond what I was asked to do in order to sate my own curiosities, not to simply aim for a grade. I  felt like I belonged and that I was valued as a member of my community.

I left school educated.

So what does this all this nostalgia and reflection on my schooling have to do with the current implementation of a LEGO robotics program at my school site?

Having been in and around education for about a decade now, I’ve grown quite fluent (as I’m sure many of you have) in eduspeak through exposure to the non-stop stream of acronyms that come in and out of fashion depending on whose in charge (of the country, of the state, of the school). Every few years there is a new something that we absolutely must do, or solve, or document… and there is always an accompanying acronym to make it sound extra important.

Right now STEM is a big hot acronym on the ed scene, or STEAM, depending on who your administrator is. (I don’t have a preference. As far as I’m concerned the “A” belongs and has a place in every area of education, but that could be the artsy anti-intellectual in me to whom my high school teacher was referring.)

I agree that improving “STEM” curriculum and expanding “STEM” curricular options in schools is important. I understand that as a nation we need to be proactive and promote “STEM” curriculum now to ensure that we have more engineers, mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists coming down the educational pipeline. I’ve read the literature explaining that if we don’t get on it as a country there are serious risks to our national security and economic consequences that we may face.

Unfortunately, STEM is just another acronym. Like every other acronym, STEM can be carelessly wielded by administrations and administrators who may be too busy to understand and plan for a truly enriched STEM curriculum. Saying “We need more STEM! STEM! STEAM! STEM!” can end up simply becoming the addition of more math and more science and more technology classes.

And here in lies the problem. More math and more science and more technology and more eduspeak will not lead to more people solving global or local problems or meeting the needs of our communities.

More critical thinkers, more citizens, more activists, and more problem-solvers will. (What can I say?  It’s how those dang Quakers taught me to think. Blame it on my education.) I propose that in addition to teaching “STEM curriculum” or developing “STEM skill sets”, we need to educate students to have “STEM sense”: sense of purpose, sense of self-awareness, sense of social responsibility, and sense of personal and professional passion because if we don’t…

I’m guessing all we are going to wind up with is a bunch of young men and young women who, when asked to by an authority figure, can “make stuff” that can “do stuff”, but who won’t necessarily know to ask what they are making and for whom and what purpose they are making it.

This, at last, brings me to why I am loving the opportunity to be involved with teaching robotics to young students at our school site. So far, even with my limited experience, robotics seems to be a great outlet to teach students important academic skills and concepts that support the STEM initiative, while simultaneously immersing them in an atmosphere where they can articulate ideas, try and fail and try again, trouble-shoot and fix, overcome and work through frustration, experience the intrinsic joy of problem-solving, relax, play, create, explore real-world issues, collaborate, encourage one another… and think critically about what they are doing and how they are doing it.

In both the elementary and middle school groups, we have plenty of room for improvement in our new programs. (Myself included!) Right now I am placing emphasis on how we communicate with each other, why it matters, and how it impacts our learning community. Many students want to cling to the safety of “Show me how to do it right”, “Will you do it for me?” or “I don’t care anyways”. But many have started to take down their walls and have begun to take some risks. It’s exciting and they are learning and they know that it is exciting and that they are learning.

See it for yourself in our latest video. (All clips were filmed by the kids.)

And now, to sum up this very-wordy-not-succinct-at-all post into a few sentences…

My Quaker education taught me to think critically and to ask questions. I value these skills and I value that my school worked to instill me with those values. The new hot acronym on the scene is STEM and it pushes for improved science, technology, engineering and math curriculum in schools, which I think is a good thing, but only if we can also educate students to think critically and ask questions about the science, technology, engineering and math skills they are learning. Oh, and by the way I enjoy teaching robotics because I get a chance to teach STEM curriculum and support critical thinking in positive, collaborative learning environments.

BTW: Here’s a little FYI for all the ALs (Acronyms Lovers) out there who like to practice your eduspeak. Here’s what I have discovered so far about implementing robotics curriculum at the elementary or middle school level. (Purely anecdotal of course…)

Robotics is hands-on so it works well with students that have ADD, or ADHD and for students who require scaffolding or SADAE methods because they happen to be ESL, or EFL, or ELL, or LEP. The curriculum can be easily modified or differentiated to challenge your GT or GATE students or to meet the needs of your students with IEPs or an ISPs.

If you teach robotics curriculum using the language of the discipline and consistently ask students to articulate ideas through speech and writing, you are also likely to help them improve scores on their BLTs, DRAs, and PSSAs. Eventually they may even score higher on PSATsSATs and GREs!

Regardless of whether your school endorses TERC, or MMdM, or MkMM,  or Saxon, the AMTE will surely be pleased if you are careful to help students make mathematical connections and to use mathematical formulas when programming their robots.

Get enough students involved in your robotics program taught by HQ teachers and your school may make AYP so you can keep your Title I funding by meeting and exceeding your NCLB requirements.

Was that TMI?

Any one care to propose a few new acronyms? It could be a really fun activity. 😉


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