What design principles would you include to ensure that an effective STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program builds mathematics understanding?

I ask because I was recently asked to be part of a discussion on “Design Principles for Effective STEM Programs that Build Mathematics Understanding.” My argument is that there is only one fundamental and critical design principle necessary to make certain that a STEM program builds mathematics understanding. I wonder if we agree.

I address the STEM question with reluctance. Our past three NCTM presidents have written messages, published articles, testified on Capitol Hill, or presented on the topic of STEM education. In addition, our NCTM teacher journals have published numerous articles and have produced focus issues related to STEM education. STEM is frequently a program strand at the NCTM Annual Meeting or Regional Conferences. The “STEM ground” would seem to have been well covered by NCTM.

Despite all these efforts, the questions concerning STEM and the requests to speak and address STEM education just keep coming. It is clear that resolution on how STEM education fits with our goals for mathematics education still lacks clarity in the minds of many.

STEM education is a focus of many policy makers, business and industry leaders, philanthropic foundations, and education leaders because the data indicate there will be accelerated growth in the number of STEM jobs the economy will generate over the next decade, particularly compared to other professions (see, for example, STEM 101: Intro to tomorrow’s jobs). Additional data indicate beginning salaries and salary growth for STEM majors will outpace those for other majors and careers.

Let me make one thing abundantly clear: I support STEM education—including science, technology, and engineering. But I support STEM education, as Michael Shaughnessy wrote, from the perspective of “political advocacy.” As mathematics educators, it is incumbent on us to be advocates for STEM education because advocacy for STEM education is advocacy for mathematics education.

Among other STEM related recommendations, NCTM’s 2017 Legislative Platform, specifically advocates for “adequate investments in the programs authorized by ESSA that serve as the basis of federal support for local education, including specific programs for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and STEM subjects.”

However, as we look beyond advocacy, one significant challenge associated with STEM education is how it is defined and implemented in districts, schools, and classrooms. There is no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes STEM education. This complicates matters and allows each entity to define STEM education in its own way to fit its experiences, biases, and agendas—NCTM included. In some cases this leads to math or science classrooms where students build bridges or program robots, but fail to acquire a deep understanding of grade level (or beyond) math or science learning standards.

Could K–12 math classrooms fail to have students engaged and learning the mathematics content and practices necessary to advance in the curriculum, but have integrated some technology, engineering, coding activities, or connections to science and be called a “STEM Program”? If students are not equipped to pursue a post-secondary STEM major and career, is it really an effective K–12 STEM program? My answer is no. No number of fun activities or shiny technology will overcome this fatal shortcoming.

Levi Patrick, chair of NCTM’s Professional Development Services Committee, pointed me in the direction of Rodger Bybee’s recent book, The Case for STEM Education: Challenges and Opportunities (NSTA 2013). Bybee is a respected science and STEM educator, and in this book he argues that the “purpose of STEM education is to develop the content and practices that characterize the respective STEM disciplines” (p. 4). Under this definition a highly effective K–12 mathematics program, built upon what we know constitutes the elements of effective mathematics programs, is an effective STEM program.

Of course, the problem with Bybee’s purpose of STEM education is that it isn’t consistent with the definition and vision many others have of STEM programs. Many individuals, particularly those outside of mathematics education, when they think of STEM education, focus specifically on curriculum integration, technology integration, and critical-thinking skills.

NCTM certainly supports curricular connections, appropriate technology integration, and critical thinking, but not at the exclusion of mathematics learning. Appropriate integration of technology in support of mathematics learning goals as well as the need to make curricular connections, both within mathematics and to contexts outside of mathematics, have been guiding principles since Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM 2000) and were reinforced in Principles to Actions (NCTM 2014).

The mathematical practices outlined in the standards of many states and Common Core State Standards for Mathematics have much in common with the scientific and engineering practices of Next Generation Science Standards. Both sets of practices emphasize the importance of understanding problems, developing and using models to solve problems, constructing viable arguments based on evidence, and critiquing the reasoning of others. When we engage students in the standards for mathematical practice, we are making connections to and supporting science education. Implementation of the recommendations in Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Mathematical Modeling Education ( GAIMME; [SIAM 2016]) provide yet another opportunity for mathematics teachers to make meaningful connections to science (and other disciplines) in support of STEM educational goals while maintaining the integrity of mathematics learning standards.

Maintaining the integrity of the mathematics learning standards is our responsibility as mathematics educators. For example, I frequently hear someone state, “I need a STEM program that teaches algebra.” I would argue a high quality algebra course already is a STEM program. The request for a “STEM program that teaches algebra” is driven by the belief that integration is the defining characteristic of a STEM program. Instead, I believe the more appropriate request would be to seek a high quality algebra program that supports STEM through its connections to appropriate applications and integration of technology.

If in the “STEM program” the mathematics isn’t on grade level, or if the mathematics isn’t addressed conceptually but rather as a procedural tool to solve various disjointed applications, or if the mathematics is not developed within a coherent mathematical learning progression, then the “STEM program” fails the fundamental design principle.

The attention mathematics education gets from STEM is primarily positive. But we need to keep in mind that there are also downsides. The possibility that we might neglect the full development of students’ mathematical understanding in order to integrate STEM “activities” into an already overpacked curriculum is real. In addition, STEM education narrowly emphasizes learning mathematics for the workplace and for the scientific and technical communities.

We must always keep in mind that we also teach mathematics for social justice.  We teach to empower students in their personal lives.  Mathematics is an important part of cultural heritage, including an understanding of the multiple contributions various cultures have made to mathematics. These purposes for teaching and learning mathematics must remain part of our curriculum during an era that emphasizes STEM preparation.

The mathematics design principle of an effective STEM program that builds mathematics understanding is just that: it is a program designed to develop the content and practices that characterize effective mathematics programs while maintaining the integrity of the mathematics. Other design principles, for example, curricular connections and the appropriate integration of technology, are merely vehicles to ensure students learn important mathematics at a deep level and are confident in their ability to use mathematics to be empowered in their own lives.

If we fail to support each and every student in developing a positive mathematics identity, a high sense of agency, and a deep understanding of mathematics, then we will have failed our students, denied them future opportunities, and ultimately failed to build the mathematical foundation necessary for the STEM outcomes that policy makers envision.

While it is true that advocacy for STEM education is advocacy for mathematics education, it is equally true that advocacy for mathematics education is advocacy for STEM education. As you receive pressure to “STEM-up” your classroom, I urge you to keep this fundamental and critical design principle in mind.

I encourage you to post a response to this message and share your challenges and successes related to STEM initiatives in your district with the mathematics education community.

Article Originally Published In: https://www.nctm.org/News-and-Calendar/Messages-from-the-President/Archive/Matt-Larson/Math-Education-Is-STEM-Education!/

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