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October 16, 2013

How to fall in love with STEM

by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

You’ve probably noticed that a nerdy topic is superhot lately. Everyone is talking about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) — specifically the need for more (and better) STEM classes and for more (and better) STEM students.

American students’ dismal showing on international math tests has a lot to do with the growing interest in STEM.  15-year-olds in the U.S. scored 26th, or  below average, in math on the most recent Programme for International Student Assessments  (PISA) exam.  U.S. students’ science scores were lackluster as well. This is bad news since STEM skills are in high demand and are considered essential if the U.S. is to remain competitive globally.

But in my little corner of the universe, STEM subjects aren’t hot — they aren’t even lukewarm, unfortunately.  My kids all like language arts, history, politics, and art.  Two of the three like science, but math holds no interest for any of them.

No nuance, no soul… and now no skills

One of my sons told me recently that it’s hard for him to pay attention in math class because he finds it so tedious, and his remark sent me hurdling back to my seventh grade math class. My teacher was petite and nervous and fragile in a scary way, as if she might unravel at any moment.  She stood at the board and forged through math lessons without humor or flare. If a student asked a question, she would often lash out, as if she couldn’t bear the stupidity. The room was a soupy temperature, and I doodled industriously to keep myself awake. It was during that year, I think, that I went from being indifferent to math to outright disliking it.  

To me, math was a bunch of static symbols without any nuance or soul; numbers that we were forced to endlessly combine and recombine in mind-numbing ways for no apparent reason. Now that I work at an education website, I get it that math is important, and I wish I’d done a better job conveying that message to my kids. As the PISA results make clear, I’m not the only one doing a poor job. And the phenonenon author Amanda Ripley describes as  a U.S.  "math handicap" in her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, spans generations. In a recent study, U.S. adults also made a poor showing compared to their counterparts in other developed countries when tested for math and technology skills. Among the 23 countries tested, American adults ranked near the bottom (adults in Japan and Finland came in first and second).

Making STEM matter

As someone who never appreciated math for its own sake (and I know I’m not alone), I wish schools would do more to help kids understand math’s relevance off the chalkboard and outside the classroom. Math is usually taught in a vacuum — like teaching a foreign language without ever mentioning the countries where the language is spoken, or exploring those countries' rich histories and cultures. 

This is the problem  math teacher Thomas Petra tries to address with his website, Real World Math, which uses Google Earth to teach kids hands-on math. One project helps students calculate the speed and distance of the famous Iditarod dog sled race (and compete in the race themselves); another follows and measures the path and power of typhoons.

“I f***ing love science” is another exciting STEM development, and it meets kids where they are – on Facebook. The page, started by British biology student Elsie Andrew as a science nerd’s labor of love, took off and now has 7 million-plus likes. It has since morphed into a YouTube channel, and a website and TV show are in the works. The IFLS page is packed with information on scientific discoveries, bizarre and fascinating facts, and slogans like, “Without engineers science is just philosophy,” and, “Nothing lasts forever except Pi.” 

I'm not suggesting we dumb STEM subjects down, but that we get smarter about the ways we teach them. Projects like Real World Math and IFLS can help entice even the most reluctant students. My seventh grade self would have stopped doodling for sure if I’d had the opportunity to chart the Iditarod race, for example.  Some people love math and have no trouble understanding how it helps us interpret the world, but many of us need persuading to grasp math's capacity to, as mathematician Manil Suri so beautifully put it in the New York Times, “reach not just for the sky or the stars or the edges of the universe, but for timeless constellations of ideas that lie beyond.”


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A couple of addendums -- there is a child-friendly version of the page at https://www.facebook.com/ScienceIsSeriouslyAwesome -- Science is Awesome.

Second, this is still only at the college level, but teachers and parents need to think about and talk about STEAM education as a way to broaden the appeal. The A standards for Art. (http://www.stemtosteam.org).

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