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Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »
STEMming The Tide Of Illiteracy And Innumeracy
January 21st, 2016 by Jeff Rowe
A lot has been debated and written about America’s general decline in science, engineering, and technology, largely blamed on the first steps of our youngest citizens – education.
The new year gives me pause to reflect on what the New Year really means. Yes, it is the beginning of a new calendar year, but it is also the beginning of the second half of the school year for elementary, middle school, and high school students. The school year is especially important to me right now as I have begun my second half as a math teacher for the current school year.
The second half of the school year provides me the opportunity to reflect on what I learned during the first half of the year and apply it to be a more effective educator during the second half.
From my perspective, I have learned that I have to teach to overcome two different but related needs – innumeracy (unfamiliarity with mathematical concepts and methods and the inability to use mathematics) as well as illiteracy (the inability to read and write). They both go hand in hand, because as important as getting the numbers right is, the ability to provide a convincing argument and communicate the numerical answer of the “why and how” is just as important.
On any given day I spend as much time on helping students communicate solutions to math problems as I do solving the math problems by saying, “Convince me that your solution is correct,” and by asking other students, “Do you agree or disagree, and why.” In this daily scenario, the math is relatively easy, it’s the student discourse that is hard.
Admittedly, math can be a very dry subject, so as much as I have been able to I have taken a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) approach to teaching math and have introduced what opportunities down the road math might provide. I focus on these areas together not only because the skills and knowledge in each discipline are essential for student success, but also because these fields are deeply intertwined in the real world and in how students learn most effectively. STEM is an interdisciplinary and applied approach that is coupled with hands-on, problem-based learning. Where I’m at right now, as soon as the basic math concepts are conveyed, and I feel understood, I jump into real world word problems where both numeracy and literacy are road tested.
Some of my students are quite aware that if they start with a solid STEM education now and go from here, they probably have a bright future ahead. As much as I can I reinforce this mindset with the fact that they will be in very high demand with good salaries and room to grow, regardless of gender or current family financial status.
I’ll be the first to admit that STEM has become an overused buzzword that implies it will solve all educational problems. By itself, it doesn’t. There are those that say that STEM has many negative impacts that are felt by students who don’t get a more well-rounded education. But, in general its hype is justified because students simply need greater scientific and technological literacy than they did before to function and compete in today’s society and economy. I can attest to this.
“Anything that gets this kind of buzzword character tends to lose some of its real meaning in the process,” said Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and author of the new book Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.
“I think every kid who graduates needs to understand science, math, and technology,” said Teitelbaum, who points out that, “Being competent in STEM fields at the end of secondary school is the modern equivalent of being literate and numerate in the 19th century.” I couldn’t agree more.
Whether we like it or not, virtually all aspects of our daily lives require us to be more tech-savvy and quantitatively focused than past generations, regardless of career. All of us have been able to relate to the dialogue about STEM because of how much our lives have been changed by technology. And guess what is the basis for understanding technology? Literacy and numeracy. It all starts with STEM.
What are your thoughts?
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