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Flowerless STEM

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STEM is such an oft-used acronym that people outside of the education industry no longer think of flowers and plants when hearing it. The origin of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math emphasis is a response to the United States’ position in the international market. In 2006 President G.W. Bush initiated policies to increase federal funding to support STEM education and output as a response to concerns that the U.S. was falling behind. That same year the Unites Sates National Academies (comprised of; National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, National Research Council) issued a plan to federal policy makers to address their concerns regarding the declining state of U.S. STEM education. When the President and national academies directly involved with very lucrative industry call for action, attention is usually paid.

Not many people would argue with improved education and higher standards in any subject. But when an initiative seems reactionary and the response narrow in focus, there is concern. Determining that there is an industry, in which the U.S. is not leading the way let alone keeping up, is relatively unprecedented. It is no wonder that we’ve reacted so strongly and rapidly. It’s a little disconcerting to start to lose one’s superpowers. But to focus on one area of study is tantamount to remodeling K-12 public education into vocational training. To do this while ignoring what other factors make many other nations superior in their industry and education is shortsighted. There are so many cultural, political and traditional differences in the ways countries conduct their business and education.

There are places in which children attend school six days a week and are in lengthy after school classes well into the evening. (There are countries in which one’s work life is as intense and prescribed as well.) There are countries in which K-12 educators are highly trained and paid and are given professional latitude and respect. But we don’t seem to be selecting much from the international buffet table beyond STEM emphasis; and that is what leads to thoughts of shortsightedness. When the money and policies are focused on one area it is inevitable that other areas will suffer. It is often those areas that are less quantifiable but no less necessary in the modern world. Most often and most likely it is Language Arts, History and the Fine Arts that are left behind. Science, math, engineering and technology are fabulous tools to help to understand how our world works and how to work within it. But being well educated is more than being well trained in one area. Understanding the world around us and knowing how to communicate to that world in which we live, knowing how to write, speak, and process the written word are crucial skills; without them there is no sharing of STEM or any other discoveries.

Without a sense of national and international history we are destined to stumble through the world half-seeing. Without exposure and access to the performing and fine arts what (to paraphrase President Franklin D. Roosevelt) are we even fighting for? The arts reflect the times in which they were created and are vibrant and pulsing history lessons. They also stretch the intellect and help us to see the entire world in more vibrant hues. Education (unlike job training) is meant to open and fill our minds. We need to be taught subjects but also how to critically think for ourselves. Education should be broad, deep and challenging. We should bolster STEM studies, and we should also ramp up all liberal arts studies. There will never be a national consortium of arts organizations with serious economic juice. But it is certainly well within the power of federal policy makers to invest in well-rounded education for all.

We have never been a country striving to make everything the same. We celebrate our diversities. We get a kick out of our different dialects, names for foods, and local customs. We are a 31 flavors kinda people. Do we really want the primary focus of our K-12 system to be in one subject area? Where will the political scientists, playwrights and lawyers come from? How will we get well-rounded novelists, historians and Supreme Court justices? There’s no doubt that our education system is not what it once was. Schools are asked to do way too many things besides educate, teachers are not treated well, and funding is elusive. The answer is not to be found by sticking our fingers in our ears and muttering “la la la STEM.’ We’re better than that, we’re bigger than that and we’re certainly more interesting than that.

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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Education

 

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The Math/Science Divide

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Why don’t girls excel in math science? Well, for one thing what does excel mean? I’m a (mature) girl and I’m good at math but don’t find it to be particularly compelling. I much prefer studies involving people and social behavior. I quite took to college Physics (as let’s face it, it explains the whole freaking universe) but never loved it enough to marry it. I do know female mathematicians, programmers and scientist (rocket and otherwise.) They exist in moderately significant numbers. Are there still a lot of lockers available in the lady scientist dressing room? Yes, and it’s a good thing attention is being paid. But what about boys?

If we’re going to engage in conversations that generalize gender why do we focus on girls’ deficits? Why is it we never discuss the gender discrepancies in the social sciences? Where are the boys in studies of philosophy, exposition, psychology, and sociology? Do they measure up? Why is it that the top (public) high schools in New York City are for math/science studies only? Do math and science concentrations lead to better paying jobs? Sometimes, but when did public high schools revert back to their roots of workplace preparation? I suspect that what’s really at the root of the exultation of math & science is the very fact that it has been a male-dominated field.

We have a long rich history of imbuing male centric endeavors or behaviors with positive attributes. It is immaterial for this argument, to dissect what gender behaviors are learned (aka socialized) and which are innate. Any parent of a baby will share with you their surprise when his/her yet to be socialized tyke exhibited gender stereotypes. Is it that the parents are looking for gender specific behavior in their child (and fail to be impressed by gender atypical or gender neutral behavior)? It doesn’t matter. Gender is very very important to people. It’s the first thing one asks when hearing about a new baby. It’s the first question on almost any form. We’ve decided it’s important and part of how you elevate a concept is to attribute it with certain characteristics.

Fine. But why are characteristics long associated with boys some how more desirable than characteristics attributed to girls? When did we decide that expressing emotion is a weakness? Was it at the same time we decided that an affinity with numbers is more admirable than an affinity with language? Why do we think that understanding machines is more valuable than understanding people? While it is true that as a cultural we are becoming slightly less rigid around gender issues. We have quite a ways to go. At the heart of much of our rigidity is our sense that boys are strong (which equals good) and girls are soft (which equals bad.) This core belief colors much of what we do as a society and traditionally has left little wiggle room for boys who enjoy a softer side and girls who enjoy a stronger side.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique, Education

 

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What Comes After We Choose To Go To The Moon?

During the 1960s there were lots of little kids jumping into newly fallen snow and shouting “First Man On The Moon!” when their boots left a print. Little boys (and some liberated little girls) dreamed of and played at being astronauts. Even if children weren’t old (or sophisticated) enough to follow NASA’s doings, there was I Dream of Jeannie. Popular culture was drenched in all things space-age and planetary. The space program was in the air if you will. Being an astronaut was to a 1960s kid what being a cowboy was to a 1950s kid. Adventure, exploration, and glamour were all packaged into a very cool outfit. Astronauts, like cowboys, even had special food. They had belts that held their lifesaving apparatus. But they also had science. For a kid who loved rocks, or space, or climate, or chemistry, he/she too could dream of being a superhero.

No one will dispute that the space program has lost some of its glamour and pizzazz over the decades. Space is not new anymore. Technology has progressed and men and women in space suits are no longer required to achieve the mission. NASA has shrunk and no one dreams of being an astronaut any longer. But what has taken its place in the imagination of children? What is there today that encompasses exploration, science and glamour? Surely there are lots of careers that hit on 2 out of 3. But is there anything, not involving sport, celebrity for celebrity sake, or undefined means of accumulating wealth, that is universally compelling to children today?

One could posit that computer programming (in the form of gaming, biomedical, etc.) is our new space program. It is the new frontier. But only for a select few and there’s nothing particularly heroic about it. On a more practical level how in the world do you play “computer programmer” in the backyard? (But then again, does anyone freestyle play in the backyard anymore?) Even if it were fun to do so, only a small percentage of children would ever aspire to sit at a desk and write code. Every kid everywhere played cowboy (1950s) or astronaut (1960s.) Did a kid from the Bronx really stand a chance of homesteading and ranching someday? (Could his mother have survived it?) Did a rural kid with an allergy to moon dust and zero interest in science make it into the space program? Not without a miracle and some sudafed. But they had a shared dream/fantasy.

For all the glamour of being an astronaut (and the sports cars, groupies and ticker-tape parades add up to a whole lot of glamour) it was a serious (and at times deadly) profession. The space program was staffed with; test pilots, scientists and engineers. These were highly educated people with talents and skills of, well of rocket scientists. There was a whole lot of there there. They were glamorized for having the right stuff. Children were right to idealize these grown-ups. Their play, whether building cardboard box rocket ships, or jumping into snowbanks, was rooted in something real and admirable. For too long we have not provided children (and therefore humanity) with a universal dream. We once heeded the call to do something not because it was easy but because it was hard. Perhaps it’s time to suit up and have another go at it.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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Home Economics 2.0

Recently I’ve wondered what has become of Home Economics.  Not the actual classes I was subjected to (more on that later) but the concept itself.  I’ve tossed the query out to various friends and acquaintances and have received murmurs of “budget cuts” in reply.  Hardly empirical data I know, but today’s opinion piece provides confirmation of our suspicions.

Now I would never extol the virtues of tedious sewing projects which only resulted in tears and an ancient teacher so frustrated by my stellar ineptitude, she used the my arm as a pincushion in an attempt to make her point.  I would never suggest someone else endure the humiliation of laboring over one simple skirt for an entire semester while the rest of the class created the equivalent of the Spring Line of Thomas Jefferson Junior High School.  I would never wish upon anyone the hollow sense of accomplishment that comes with an end of year unveiling of a skirt that no longer fit.

But cooking, and nutrition?  Well that’s a horse of a different color.

I think we can all agree, we’ve got a little weight issue in this country.  There is nothing like learning about the origin of food, nutrition, and cooking to aid in the decision process involved in eating.  If that weren’t reason alone to re-imagine Home Economics classes, consider for a moment the inherent math and science lessons to be had in growing and preparing food.  Chlorophyll, banana cultivation, baking chemistry, weights and measures…Years of lesson plans are just waiting to be delivered in the most entertaining (BAM!) delicious ways.

There has never been a better time to consider this curriculum.  My family (of origin) sat down to dinner together every single night.  Lunches were consumed at home, or were packed in a brown bag (note: mashed banana and peanut butter on whole wheat really needs the protection of a proper lunchbox) weekend breakfasts were a family affair.  There was no junk food (except for birthday celebrations) and nutrition was often discussed.  Again, without any scientific proof, I’m willing to say that the majority of children are not experiencing their meals in this manner today.

Unlike technology in the classroom (we’ll save debating the return on investment of teaching students power point, for another day) the teaching of Home Economics need not be an astronomical financial investment.  Yes, the title “Home Economics” is a bit cloying, and does conjure apron-y imagery.  But with the modern interpretation of say; Domestic Engineering, we can begin to imagine how making education (specifically math and science) personal, makes all the sense in the world.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2011 in Education

 

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