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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
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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5 Responses to “STEMming The Tide Of Illiteracy And Innumeracy”

  1. Doug Cheney says:


    Thank you for sharing your expertise and enthusiasm with the under-served kids in our community and for sharing your experience with us through your newsletter.

    Based on your thoughts this week, I highly recommend the book, “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler at Stanford. It was just published last semester.

    -Doug Cheney

  2. Dora Smith says:

    Jeff, long time no talk. I hope you are well. Thank you for stepping up to educate these students in math. Your industry background can make a world of difference in a class like that. It’s great to hear you are introducing science, technology and engineering to give more real-world application in math but tough to hear of the struggle in communication and literacy. Is there something more a company like ours (Siemens PLM Software) can do to help math educators like yourself? Are you teaching in CO or MI? There’s software but maybe more interesting for your students to interact with some of our employees or customers to see where a future in strong math and STEM interest can lead. Let me know how we can help.

    Dora Smith
    Siemens PLM Software
    Academic Program

  3. Kevin De Smet says:

    For what it’s worth, I love engineering but I hate mathematics. Always have and probably always will. What do you make of this?

    • Jeff Rowe Jeff Rowe says:

      Your sentiment is unusual, but not that unusual.

      I wasn’t too crazy about math either until the concepts got more challenging and I could see how essential the math was for bigger, better, and more interesting things.

      That’s a big part of the reason that I am teaching middle school math this school year — that the “boring” stuff we’re learning now will lead to a lot more interesting things and greater opportunities down the road.

      • Kevin De Smet says:

        I don’t know what to think. A lot of assumptions and old ideas are drawn on, in order to justify teaching mathematics to engineering students. The way I see it, there are branches of engineering that need to use math but this is perhaps 10% if even that high, so why then require all engineering students to learn mathematics? It seems to me more like old habits die hard.

        Important things get neglected: project management, brainstorming, team dynamics. These things are crucially present factors in every engineering project and in formal curriculums get sidelined because they’re “soft” things and you’ll be lucky to see even a single semester on these kinds of topics. Bullied out of the way, by things like math.

        I also believe in just-in-time learning. Teaching loads of stuff to somebody just because they happen to be 16, 18, 21 years old or whatever…is another axiom we hold as truth, that I doubt very much!

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