STEM++ & The STEM Problem Space

The STEM++ 2015 conference and movement come from a recognition that all is not well in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education in the US.

We would like to say that the most obvious problem is that too many underrepresented students, and girls in general, get kicked off of STEM pathways. But apparently that’s still not obvious to a lot of people. What is plain, finally, is that here in the Silicon Valley — one the engines of America’s economy, and its capitol of innovation — the lack of diversity is a big problem. Industry has taken notice, and some companies are making admirable steps in the right direction. Nonprofits like Code2040 are doing amazing work, helping to bridge the higher-ed to industry gap for underrepresented students. Below that level — from PreK through higher-ed, however, there are still far too many obstacles that bump qualified students off track permanently. And yes, this is true even in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area — even in some of our finest schools.

It is important to know that this is not a simplistic problem with a simplistic solution (money, training, etc); nor is it an unsolvable dilemma; nor is it a matter of finding the right object of blame.

Instead, what we need is to understand more dimensions of the problem. In STEM education, we do not just have a problem, we have a big “problem space,” a landscape of beliefs and practices that constrain what we think possible, what we do, and how we think about all of it.

Let’s consider a few aspects of this STEM education problem space:

Identity

Sometimes people ask if students are in fact kicked off STEM pathways. “Aren’t they just choosing other passions and paths? Isn’t it best for students to form their own identities?” People asking these questions often overlook the fact that students are forming their academic identity in conversation with peers, grades, teachers, and other academic experiences. All of these interactions have the potential to dissuade qualified students from pursuing paths of interest to them. For some, as Freeman Hrabowski has noted, it’s the first C in college that causes a major re-think. For others, it could be 8th grade algebra, stereotype threat or outright bias, or one of a million other discouragements.

What to Measure

How do we know if our school is doing well in STEM? What do we point to as evidence? Do we point to inputs — how many courses we offer, how much money we spend on teachers, training, technology, and construction of facilities? Or to outputs like the number of kids taking Advanced Placement courses or getting into elite colleges? In K-12 schooling, do our measures help or hurt our ability to point students to challenging work in higher education and beyond? Is it enough to have measures that just get to the end of the year?

Unicorns

Is our additional spending helping everyone in our school, or only students already exposed to STEM experiences from an early age? We see far too many schools celebrating “their” success by pointing to the accomplishments of a few students who have had every early advantage.

Teachers

Far too often, STEM improvement efforts have neglected the role of current teachers in crafting solutions. This is an irresponsible waste of human talent. Furthermore, STEM improvement efforts within schools often needlessly alienate non-STEM teachers, instead of bringing them on board to work together.

STEM Teachers and Administrators

Some STEM teachers and administrators see it as part of their professional identity and responsibility to sort students into or out of STEM pathways. Messages like “You are so creative, so don’t worry if math is hard for you” or “If you got a grade like that, you should think about another major” are unhelpful but sadly not uncommon.

Our Fractured Education System

Promising practices, phenomenal teachers, and terrific schools do exist. Spreading practices is hard in an educational system fractured among many local districts; and among private, religious, charter, and district public schools. Even within schools, teacher isolation is a reality.

Education and the World

Everyone in education knows, on some level, that education is about the world. That it prepares students for meaningful lives and challenging careers. But often in the day-to-day and year-to-year work of education becomes focused on mere concerns of schooling, and not on the beauty of the world, the crazy challenges our students will help to address, and on the qualities of relationships that make for thriving communities.

Problems on Both Ends

As schools with limited resources struggle to create opportunities for their students, wealthy schools and districts in the Bay Area struggle with a very different problem: incredible performance anxiety and numbing perfection-driven stress that damages lives and families.

Empathy

A common feature among all of these facets of the problem space is a failure of empathy, intentional or not. Too often we look for a scapegoat to explain away these issues, or we blame the victim. Collectively, we have the opportunity to look at these difficulties and say, “We see there’s a problem here. How can we help?” Much of the STEM++ conference will be spent listening to stories of struggle, hearing from people doing promising work, and making connections so we can build a more productive, generative, and resilient ecosystem of opportunity. We hope you will join us.

The STEM++ 2015 conference takes place on October 10, 2015. For more information, please see http://stemplusplus.org/