Integrating the study of STEM in secondary schools - Education Matters Magazine
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Integrating the study of STEM in secondary schools

Diversity issues in computer science classes.

Byron Scaf, CEO of Stile Education, makes the case for seeking ways of integrating STEM learning into all areas of study.

10:45am. Year 9 woodwork technology class. Students are building chairs and have been told to cut and join pieces of wood to form a right-angled triangle. With little time to explore it further, the teacher tells their students exactly how to cut the wood to achieve the desired angles. Fast forward only a few weeks and the same students are in class, but this time it’s maths. The time-old sigh of bored students echoes around the room: “why are we learning this anyway, we’re never going to use it”. You guessed it, they were learning about how to calculate the angles of a triangle.

Our secondary education system, designed largely in and for the industrial era, is in desperate need of revision if it is to remain effective in preparing students for their adult lives. One opportunity is to combine the isolated study of science, maths and technology (like woodwork – though all the cool kids are now running “maker spaces” instead) into a single, integrated “STEM” subject. Doing so will provide context to students, making learning relevant and engaging, whilst likely save time. Most importantly it creates a natural setting for students to hone their problem solving and logical reasoning skills, critical to their success in a rapidly changing world.

TECHNOLOGY IS MAKING ‘ROUTINE’ JOBS REDUNDANT. 

Our industrial era education system was designed to churn out ‘factory workers’ that could repeat learnt patterns with a high degree of accuracy. But the world and the nature of work is changing. Being able to quickly recall facts and procedures is no longer relevant when all the worlds’ information is accessible from the smartphone in your pocket. Recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are starting to combine to outperform humans in many traditional jobs, from driving a truck to language translation.

So, what are the jobs we need to be thinking about when crafting an education program for this generation?

While attempting to figure out exactly what jobs will exist in the next couple of decades is largely an exercise in crystal ball gazing, perhaps we can make a few generalisations based on the latest generation of technology. For instance, while we’ve made some serious advances in artificial intelligence to solve specific problems (such as recognising which of your friends are in your Facebook photos, or being the best at chess), jobs that require general problem solving, creative thinking and bespoke analysis are hard to automate. Shouldn’t we therefore prioritise instilling these skills in students? Enter STEM.

If you’re not familiar with STEM, don’t worry. It’s the latest and greatest in a long line of ill-defined acronyms that has cropped up amongst education glitterati; it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
The grouping has come about because they are a closely related set of subjects teaching overlapping and complimentary skills. Strangely though, in all but a few avant-garde schools, the concept of collapsing these subjects into one does not seem to have been entertained. Perhaps it’s time to consider it.

STEM inherently creates relevance, especially in maths. We all intuitively know that when something is relevant to us, and we’re interested in it, we find it far easier to learn – we often even become eager to learn. Science, technology and engineering all give maths relevance, because maths is the tool, the language if you like, of these disciplines. Learning about angles in the context of a woodwork class, automatically provides relevance and a reason for learning – the knowledge is required to achieve the goal.

Consider the Australian Curriculum for Year 8 across design/technology, mathematics and science together and one can readily imagine highly integrated projects covering many cross-discipline outcomes simultaneously. For example, let’s take a simple project of making something that can then be sold: muffins are always great. The process of planning, making and ultimately selling muffins seems trivial, but there are many important life skills and curriculum outcomes covered. We can cover ratios, percentages and profit/loss in maths. Digestion in science (maybe they need to be gluten free. Why? Look at Coeliac Disease – highly relevant for students), not to mention reinforcing Year 7 mixtures. We can cover off iterative design, sustainability, outsourcing, and healthy eating topics as per the design and technology curriculum with confidence. Feeling adventurous? We could also design and prototype new moulds for baking our muffins, and improve important mental arithmetic calculating correct change at point of sale.

Not only do we cover huge swathes of the curriculum quickly and efficiently, it is an enormous amount of fun and full of actual useful life skills.

Similarly, bringing technology to maths provides a whole new toolset for solving problems. I remember one maths assignment in Year 9, where the letters of the alphabet were assigned a particular dollar value, and we had to find as many $100 words as we could. Most students came up with four or five; the best students in the class came up with nine or ten. However, two students in the class, who were otherwise mid-level performers, came up with over 100. How? They had a general interest in computers and had taught themselves some basic programming. Nothing elaborate mind you, and nothing more than what you could do with some fancy footwork in Microsoft Excel, but in simply understanding that
a computer could solve these types of problems efficiently, they were able to figure out enough to substantially outperform the class. I’m not suggesting that our curriculum should include the formal study
of software engineering, but a basic understanding of how maths and computers relate is essential. Real- world scientific problems people face today involve huge datasets that are only surmountable with the help of computers. Knowing that these tools exist is critical to having a strong general problem solving capability.

STEM DOESN’T STAND ALONE 

An integrated STEM subject doesn’t mean we neglect all other learning areas, nor does it suggest the removal of explicit teaching. It is important to state this explicitly because there has been pushback from some sectors, based on the misunderstanding that a STEM focus would come at the expense of the arts, wellbeing, history, philosophy or literacy. These subjects, especially literacy, are essential to a well-rounded education. We must also recognise that problem-based and explicit teaching approaches can and should sit side-by-side.

Deeply integrating the learning of maths, science and technology offers a fantastic opportunity to provide real-world relevance to concepts that are often dry and boring for students. A problem- based, integrated approach would bring secondary education closer to the real world, and foster the generalised problem solving abilities that will be required of successful participants in tomorrow’s workforce. We owe it to students to seriously consider such a change.