STEM is a skill, not a curriculum

Occasionally, when thinking without a harness, there comes the time to rant, this rant is brought to you by buzzword creators everywhere. I am sick to death of people jumping on the STEM bandwagon. As a content, STEM means nothing. As a skillset, it means quite a bit as it is a process of “doing,” which utilizes various principles of design thinking.

All good teaching uses design thinking to a certain degree. Principles of design are in good art classes, English classes, history classes, sciences classes, math classes. Just good classes. STEM is not exclusive to the domain of left brain oriented curriculum, in fact, STEM thrives on the right side of the brain, which is why STEM is quickly becoming STE(A)M, with the inclusion of the Arts.

What worries me is when parents will ask a school if it is a STEM school, the principal might invariably say, “Yes, see the sign on the building, it says so right there!” The parent looks at the sign in glee as she believes her child will be given an education focused on a curriculum. And, I fear, that is how it is sold. And there will likely be nothing different offered in that school.

If the same parent asked my school if we are STEM, I would argue that yes, we are. The parent would like to see the sign, and I would argue that STEM principles are embedded in all that good teachers do. My school encourages our teachers to foster some sense of inquiry, and from there develop the principles of design thinking. As well, we are an International Baccalaureate school, which means those classes are developed around inquiry, the foundation of STEM. That, in fact, is the big difference between IB and AP in my mind: IB begins and ends with inquiry and skills, where AP has a tendency to focus on content first, skills and inquiry second.

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Students working on spaghetti towers. After, they reflected on how they used each of the 21st Century Skills.

If you have been following my writing, you know that I am a fan of the 21st century skills. So often, my students tell me that school doesn’t teach them anything they will need in the real world. When they say this, they are referring to skills like writing a check, paying taxes, balancing a check book. When they bring this up, I make a quick demonstration on the board of how these basics are done (with a few snide remarks), and let them know that these are not the skills that they actually need.

The skills they need in reality are not so obvious. The problem is that teachers often do a poor job of informing their classes of the skills they are utilizing in completing a task and what this skill means outside of their classes. If we want our students to be empowered learners, they need to know the skill they are utilizing in the completion of a task to understand content is necessary beyond the walls of that class. Content should be a vehicle to teach a skill that is used outside of that content.

When I had my students building spaghetti towers in class a couple of weeks back, one class got into a heated argument to define assistance. A group used materials attached to the ceiling to provide support for their tower. They argued that it was not different than using tape affixed to the table. Other groups argued that this violated the rules. So I gave groups time to develop their arguments and sought an impartial judge in the form of our calculus teacher, and they presented their arguments to define what is and is not assistance.

When we open our classes to the idea of using content to develop skills, these conversations with students become real and authentic. Students should realize that a class is not so much about the content as it is about the skill and what that skill means outside of that class. I try to be intentional in each class about the skills we will be working on and how these are used beyond the walls of my classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, I love everything STEM. What I don’t like is when schools place a label on their building and claim to be something outside of a normal high school. STEM is developed around skills, not content. Every school should be a STEM school. Even without the label.