Strategies that Engage Minds: Redefining STEM Education

An interview with Dr. Sam Houston, by Russ Campbell

Traditionally, STEM is an acronym that stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” a field of learning that has received concerted effort in recent years, and continues to shape dialogues surrounding education policy and initiatives to encourage young people across genders to get involved in STEM study and careers. Below is an interview with Dr. Sam Houston, an advocate for education, who offers an alternative definition: Strategies that Engage Minds, which he hopes will offer nuance to traditional perspectives on STEM education. This interview was conducted by Russ Campbell, Senior Communications Officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Credit: Kevin Jarrett, via Unsplash

What led to you coining the phrase “Strategies that Engage Minds” as an alternative to “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” for the STEM acronym?

There was a prevailing misconception that STEM was in conflict with arts and creativity — that there were no arts and creativity in STEM — and that is simply not true. When you think of science in a broader context, it’s as much about developing a skill set to deal with the unknown as it is about dealing with the parts of an atom, the periodic table, and molecules — the things we eventually forget. This new acronym was a defense mechanism, in a sense, driven by an effort to try to help others expand their vision of STEM.

I was trying to tell the story in a broader context without resorting to using every letter of the alphabet in the acronym. A few other alternatives I’d been hearing were “STEAM,” with the A in reference to “agriculture.” The E was also being referred to as “energy and environment.” There was even one school that wanted to use STREAM so that they could incorporate religion. And as I witnessed these debates continue, I became concerned that people weren’t thinking broadly enough about the big picture.

Education needs to be preparatory, equipping our students to deal with the unknown, and in these changing times, “Strategies That Engage Minds” tells a better story of what education needs to be about: interpretive and coping skills. I believe that creativity is best taught by putting students in unknown and uncomfortable situations, where they have to rely on their own ingenuity to figure their way out. That’s when they get creative.

There are three skills that every student needs:

  • The first is the ability to demonstrate through performance that they are an independent thinker and learner. That’s critical. That doesn’t mean doing so alone, that doesn’t mean don’t use technology, that doesn’t mean don’t draw on outside resources — it means being smart, creative, resourceful enough to know how to address a particular situation.
  • Secondly, students have to be thoughtful in order to deal with the chaos around them. Being thoughtless gets you in trouble. A great educational thinker once said to me, “The problem with students is that when they don’t know what to do, they don’t know what to do.”
  • So lastly, we need to make sure students know what to do when they are not sure about what to do. In other words, when they’re in a new, potentially uncomfortable situation, are they equipped to forge ahead — whether that’s leaning on teammates or mentors, researching answers online, utilizing other resources or their own creativity and problem-solving skills.
North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center

What about content?

The only way to learn these skills is through content — not by doing multiple-choice tests. That’s “Strategies That Engage Minds.” Students need to be in situations where they must demonstrate their performance skills. We want to see that they have a command of the material and content by using the skill set they learned. In other words, show me what you can do.

How can students show what they can do?

Students can show what they can do when they have the opportunity to deal with “what if?” questions. Knowing the facts about the “Gettysburg Address” and the “I Have a Dream” speech is one skill set. But being able to compare and understand what those speeches are about is an entirely different skill set. How are these learnings applicable in everyday life? That demonstrates that they understand this content at a deeper level.

An example of this kind of learning in mathematics is, rather than simply solving a formula, students are put into a situation where they have to design a formula or process to arrive at a mathematical conclusion. The demonstration and understanding I speak to is being able to use information and content beyond memorization. It’s about using content the way it would be used in the real world — the application of information to explain a thought pattern. It’s a demonstration of knowledge by analyzing information and making sense of it.

How would you say that “Strategies That Engage Minds” is involved in civic engagement?

STEM is about making content relevant to a student’s life. We can tie literary pieces to points and times in history. We can look at music from the historical perspective and the story it tells about those times. But how is history tied to scientific advances? How do these things impact our world? We build civic responsibility by showing students that what they’re learning is connected to the world they’re in, and that they can use the information and ingenuity they have as a route to a better world.

Credit: Mimi Thian, via Unsplash

If you take Strategies That Engage Minds and interpretive and coping skills and wrap them around a civic issue, you’re making a difference. Civic responsibility begins with an understanding of the reason and purpose behind a particular issue. Traditional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be silos of disciplines and information, but Strategies That Engage Minds help students understand where they can play a role to make a difference — and that’s central to civic education and civic responsibility.

How can students put Strategies That Engage Minds to action in a civically responsible manner?

I think one of the easiest ways to demonstrate that is through environmental issues. They can create recycling programs in their schools or create projects to deal with clean water issues. It’s a direct way to help our communities.

Civic responsibility is also about being able to take their knowledge and express a belief system about contemporary issues. This may be about voting or advocating on behalf of an issue and working to inform others and create change.

At the SMT Center, we offer a Student Leadership Awards in STEM for North Carolina students who demonstrate leadership roles in service projects that play a role in their community. Through the program, they leverage the knowledge they have and apply it in some way to help others.

Dr. Samuel Houston is a former teacher, principal, school superintendent, and adjunct professor. He became president and CEO of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center in 2003, a non-profit organization that works to improve statewide performance for pre-kindergarten through high school students. Dr. Sam Houston was also the executive director of the North Carolina Education Standards and Accountability Commission and executive director of the University of North Carolina Center for School Leadership Development. RJR-Nabisco Foundation has recognized him as an innovative leader in educational programs. Houston is a graduate of Appalachian State, East Carolina University, and UNC Greensboro.