STEM gets broader — and shallower

In a vain attempt to make STEM appealing to right-brained students, educators are ignoring and alienating the left-brained math and science guys, writes Katharine Beals in Out in Left Field.

Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit, reports the New York Times. The story cites President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative and the lack of improvement by U.S. students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Beals sees it differently.

. . . our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dancefraction muralsphotosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

“The kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening” isn’t likely to persevere through a STEM major, she predicts. Those with the potential to be STEM specialists want to learn math and science.

At Auntie Ann’s school, the science fair used to require students to conduct an experiment. Now they can make a Rube Goldberg machine or a robot or research an environmental issue. “This year they’ve also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.”

It used to be the only time students did a research project and wrote a “serious paper,” she writes. Now students get full credit for writing 30 sentences. “The kids who did Rube Goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg.”

Rapping about science at a STEAM school

Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA showed up at a Bronx Compass High School to rap about science, stunning students, reports Slate. (He apparently is very hot stuff.)  The visit was part of Science Genius, a  program created by Columbia Professor Christopher Emdin.

Bronx Compass integrates the arts with STEM to create STEAM, reports the New York Daily News.

The Castle Hill school, which opened last year, offers classes and programs in video game design, robotics, film, media and software engineering. It will add fashion design — or “intelligent clothing” with electronics — next school year.

Instead of using textbooks, students complete all their work in Google Docs. They write essays and create their own podcasts. They produce and screen films.

And on a recent day, students were immersed in finishing up video games they had created based on serious topics like the Holocaust and life in the Bronx.

In the music class, students used GarageBand and Audiotool programs to mix their beats.

Does STEAM make sense?

At the end of sophomore biology class, I made a movie with some friends that featured the Reproduction Song:  “Double your pleasure, double your fun, with reproduc -, reproduc -, reproduction.”

I also wrote a DNA Song: “Oh, the adenine’s connected to the thymine, and the cystosine’s connected to the guanine, and the helix goes around and around and around and the helix goes around and around.”

We also parodied those science films starring Dr. Research.

It was fun, but I’m not sure it was educational.

STEM to STEAM?

Arts advocates want to get on the science-math bandwagon, turning STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to STEAM, reports Ed Week.

For instance, the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership, with support from a $1.1 million Education Department grant, is working with city schools to help elementary students better understand abstract concepts in science and mathematics, such as fractions and geometric shapes, through art-making projects.

Harvey Seifter, director of the Art of Science Learning, organizes STEAM conferences, arguing that studying art teaches creativity.

John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, “invokes STEAM as a pathway to enhance U.S. economic competitiveness, citing as an example the late Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs, a leading force behind the iPod, iPhone, and other electronic devices,” Ed Week writes.

Sure, the arts are important. And integrating subjects often makes sense. But I worry that students will spend less time learning science and math and more time on the “crayola curriculum.”