Spreading STEM by connecting it to English and History

Often when high schools talk about integrating curriculum, they focus mainly on integrating English and History in order to show the connections between them, but leave Math, Science and other subjects out of the conversation. As a Computer Science and Math teacher, I always wanted to be a part of the interesting integrations that were happening between English and History, but I was never sure what that would look like. You can rather easily imagine how an English class reads books related to the historical events being covered in History class, but it’s not as immediately obvious how Math or Science would fit into such a conversation.

What if we could find a way to integrate Math, English, Science and History across each grade level? How much more engaging would all of the content be if students could see rich connections between them?

At one school where I taught, English and History classes were integrated for freshmen and sophomores on these themes:

  • The World (so, World History and World Literature)
  • The United States (so, American History and American Literature)

During junior and senior year, students began taking more AP classes, so I’ll just focus on the first two years for now.

What if we enhanced the freshmen and sophomore integration by adding Math and Science?

Instead of having Algebra, Geometry, Trig, Conceptual Physics, Biology and Chemistry, we’d have Integrated Math 1 and 2, and Integrated Science 1 and 2. (Or, World Math and World Science for freshmen, and American Math and American Science for sophomores, to follow the naming conventions!) Integrated courses are now generally accepted on transcripts by colleges and, for those in California, they can be written up for University of California A-G credit.

Integrated Math 1 would explore the story and issues of the world through a mathematical lens.

War, for example, is a big topic in world history and world literature. Historically, there are lots of important wars that have dramatically changed countries, cultures and economies. And there are lots of great books about the experience of war that teach students to empathize across cultures and time. Mathematically, there are important questions to understand about war as well. For example:

  • How much does it cost to wage a war? Is there a threshold for a war being “too expensive”?
  • How have the costs of war changed over time? What factors might have caused these changes?
  • What are the causes of death during wars? What strategies lead to more or less death?
  • Is there an optimal length of time for waging a war? How do we determine this length for any given war?
  • How do we determine (i.e. model) whether to intervene in a country’s recovery post-war? e.g. How much did it cost to remain in Afghanistan after the war? Would it have cost more to stay in Iraq post-war or fight ISIS now?

To answer these questions, students need a diverse set of mathematical skills that cut across traditionally separate domains. They need to know algebra, probability, statistics, exponents, logarithms, derivatives, graphing and more. They also need to know paramath skills like using Excel, reading tables and graphs, and supporting mathematical ideas with evidence from both math and non-math. Instead of learning these skills in isolated, practice-oriented work, students would learn them in the context of relevant, real world questions that would give the work more meaning and value.

Alongside Integrated Math 1, Integrated Science 1 would explore similar topics from the perspective of a scientist.

Again, if we just look at war (though there are many more topics within global studies), there are lots of interesting questions for young scientists to explore:

  • How are weapons designed to achieve maximum military impact with minimal civilian casualties? How do we ensure precision and accuracy?
  • How are handheld weapons, like guns and anti-aircraft launchers, designed as compared to the designs of much larger weapons like tanks and bomber planes?
  • What are the mental, emotional and psychological effects of war? How does this trauma compare to the trauma experienced from living in violent communities and abusive families?
  • How do you feed soldiers to sustain them on the battlefield? What foods and on what schedule ensure they’re receiving sufficient nutrients?
  • What is the impact of war on local natural resources? How do you maintain resources during a war and/or recover them afterwards?

To answer just this subset of questions, students need biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and environmental science. You could also imagine purposeful embodied activities where students get to test their ideas and apply scientific theories by designing (safe!) projectile launchers and talking with soldiers experiencing PTSD. Imagine how much more informed and engaged students would be with such experiences.

Similarly, Integrated Math 2 and Integrated Science 2 would explore questions related to the United States from a math lens and a science lens.

Some example questions are:

  • How has the population of the United States grown over time? What caused these changes? What caused spikes throughout history? What is the projected growth for the next 10 years and can the country support that growth?
  • Recently, there has been a lot of news about police killing unarmed black men. Is this new? Are there particular parts of the country where this is more or less of an issue relative to the size of the local black population? How do the number of killings of unarmed black men compare to the number of killings of unarmed people in other groups?
  • What causes the droughts in California? What are innovative ways to collect and maintain enough water year-round?
  • What are the impacts of industrialization on public health and our natural resources? How do we measure them? How do we minimize the negative impacts?

Exploring content through an integrated lens shows students the everyday, practical value of Math and Science, in addition to the value of English and History. It also makes students more curious about the world and more informed consumers of news and information. Isn’t that what we want for all of our students?

What if we focused our high school math and science courses on these kinds of real world connections? How many more students would get excited about Math and Science because they’re analyzing data and conducting experiments related to the books they’re reading and historical issues they’re exploring in their Humanities classes?

Together, Math, English, Science, and History form an exciting MESH of knowledge!

Disclaimers:

  • If you’re teaching boring books and having students memorize history facts, connecting Math and Science won’t make what you’re doing any more interesting. I’m assuming that all (or most) of your classes in each of these areas are already fairly engaging for students.
  • Yes, there are lots of standards to cover at each grade level, but I’m confident that you are a brilliant Math and/or Science teacher, and can figure out a creative way to cover your standards while still connecting your content in meaningful ways to the Humanities courses.