Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Overcoming the Obstacles to STEM Learning in an Urban School

800px-us_navy_100727-n-4304m-0

Christopher Emdin identifies five reasons why kids won't be scientists in his revealing entry for the Huffington Post. Even more convicting is his straightforward indictment of most science (and math) classrooms:

"...much research in urban science education has proven that youth are more disengaged than ever in STEM-focused classes. Students are bored, don't find the topics being discussed as engaging, and opt for majors and interests in other disciplines. For those who are engaged in science classes, and are doing well in them, the nature of the instruction and the assessments often reflect more of an ability to memorize facts and sit attentively than truly actually engage in science. For these students, when they are faced with "true science" further along in their academic careers, they are underprepared for the creativity, analytical skills, and curiosity necessary to truly engage and be successful."

Student engagement, connection with the curriculum goals, contribution to the class, and ownership of the learning are precisely what our classroom observations have focused on this fall and nowhere is that more critical than in the STEM courses from the earliest grades to graduation. Urban students have a right to an education that will lead them through pathways to exciting, challenging careers in the sciences, engineering, technology and math, just as much as our more affluent neighbors.

During a discussion earlier this week, we talked about how just the traditional system of grading sends a message, "You suck at science (or math)!" Too often, students come to each new STEM class with some reluctance but anticipating that perhaps this will be a better experience and the worst is behind me. It starts out "good" but maybe with a little apprehension. Then two weeks into the class, the first graded quiz or test sends the message once again, "You still suck at __________!" From then on, its purely survival and do what I need to do to pass this class and move on. Retaking tests and staying after school everyday just to scrimp enough points to pass the class will not instill a desire to be a scientist.

What we've seen this fall in our secondary science classrooms at Lee Middle & High School is a great start and we want to continue building on the quality teaching and learning experiences that stimulate student interest. In the end, if students elect not to pursue STEM in higher education or their careers, let it be based on their decision not something we've done to them.

Here's a quick list of Emdin's five reasons and I encourage you to read his explanation of each:

1) We have instilled the phrase "I'm not good at math or science" into a new generation.

2) Science is taught in a way that is opposite to what it truly is.

3) Science has lost the "cool factor" and kids have no "science heroes."

4) We don't focus on current issues in the discipline.

5) Good grades in science will not make you a scientist.