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This is the problem with STEAM (and STEM to a lesser extent)

  1. Sep 14, 2017 #1
    Apologies, but this is going to be a long rant to start a discussion.

    TL;DR: STEM (STEAM), like many forms of government and economics, are great in principle, but terrible when people get involved.

    At my high school we are required to participate in Professional Learning Communities. This year part of the focus is on our new STEAM initiative. For those that don't know, the A is because the arts (language?, creative?, civic?, where does it stop?) were feeling left out and wanted to be part of the funding target that is STEM. So now we have STEAM (formerly known as school).

    The focus this year is on collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity (which is how the A justified its way in there I guess). Now those are fine goals to be sure, but not if they come at the expense of the entire point which is to get more science, technology, engineering, and math to our students.

    Our first activity was to build the cork shooter that is all over the internet. Again, not a bad project. But the focus included absolutely no STEM, just the A in the "imagining" and 20 minutes to slop together glue and popsicle sticks, the idea of which came to all groups simultaneously as they whipped out their smartphones. The same teachers that would have a heart attack if a student did that in class. No mention of how these contraptions work. I bet maybe 5 in the whole faculty could remember what energy transformation is and 2 if we're lucky know about the concept of simple projectile motion. But, like an idiot, I held my tongue. It was pre-planning and my brain hadn't really started yet.

    Yesterday we had our second meeting. This time we had 30 minutes to figure out how to use the bag of junk we were given to land a plastic army man on a target on the moon. Immediately, all other groups whipped out their cell phones to see how to construct a parachute ... to land on the moon. I made my group use a simplified version of the sky crane from the MSL mission. Being charitable, I started making calculations showing how the impact force of even a 2 m/s decent by parachute being stopped hard (less than a mm stopping distance for our nearly rigid army man on hard floor) would give an avg acceleration of ~200 G's, whereas ours, with a pad at the bottom, even if just dropped full speed from the bleachers without the sky crane would feel around 10 G's. As I was doing this, I was actively stopped by the principle because the physics teacher using math and science (in this STEAM activity) wasn't fair to the other groups. He just wanted to see which parachute came the closest to the target and took the longest to hit the ground because that's what soft is (he was formerly a calculus teacher).

    So here we come to the problem with STEAM (and STEM has the same problem). The people that are in charge of implementing these programs have no interest it whether or not they actually meet the stated goal. But we are giving our students this idea that they are actively participating in math and science activities. Real STEM activities have to be woven in with actual STEM knowledge which pretty well requires that they be part of a STEM class. But all the higher ups want is for the public to see that we are doing something that can be pulled over their eyes as STEM. This will ultimately devalue STEM and put us right back in the position we are trying to leave.

    So I'm going to continue to torture my students by making them actually do calculations. I also need to calmly make my point known to the administration, but I need to figure out how to do that tactfully.

    Am I totally off my rocker on this point?
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 14, 2017 #2


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    Wow. To me, the activities that you described seem like something that would be used to get students interested in learning STEM. Or maybe something that would be done after learning the physics, to show it in action.
  4. Sep 14, 2017 #3
    I agree, they're good starting points. The problem is we get through the creative part and never come to the stem part. So how can we justify this as stem?
  5. Sep 14, 2017 #4


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  6. Sep 14, 2017 #5

    jim mcnamara

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    You cannot justify it, as I see it.

    Whatever the cause, the symptoms can be expressed this way:
    My father learned basic calc in high school in 1930.
    I learned basic calc in high school in 1960.
    In 1979 more than 80% of the incoming freshman at the college I was on faculty, had to take remedial 8th grade math. And they had taken and passed the courses in high school that indicated they should be able to enroll and succeed in Calculus I.

    In 19 years something got lost in the STEM curriculum. Maybe, it is called content. Like your STEAM adventure.
  7. Sep 14, 2017 #6
    I guess it all comes down to politics. They want to get buy-in from the public on their new idea. They want to get funding to implement it, so they wrap it up in the current money draw that is STEM. But they call it STEAM because now it's new and innovative. And then along the way the science gets completely left out, so that when they come to my class they think that science is about knowing facts and building cutesy projects. I throw some critical analysis and math their way and 10 kids drop the class because this isn't how science was sold to them.

    I just got back from talking with my principal about all of this, and he is a good enough guy to understand my position and let me get if off of my chest.
  8. Sep 14, 2017 #7


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    I literally laughed out loud when I read this line.

  9. Sep 14, 2017 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    I appreciate your thoughtful post- I have often expressed similar thoughts to my colleagues both in math education (math department) and in the college of education.

    From my perspective (university), K-12 teachers are being pulled in too many directions. While we (educators) want students to have 'authentic' research experiences and try to create programs designed to provide this (say, problem-based learning or the two activities you described), the reality is that effective teaching methods are very costly, time-consuming, and do not provide a definite "learning outcome". Administrators (and many parents) won't accept that. So the compromise solution is typically a well-intentioned program incorporating trendy educational ideas distributed by administrators to educators, without providing those educators the resources (not just money, but also time) needed to implement.

    School district "report cards" and excessive state testing simply exacerbates the problem.

    All education is a money losing enterprise, with results that don't fully appear until years later. This is the exact opposite of business enterprises that live and die by quarterly reports, yet the public keeps demanding that schools model themselves as businesses.

    What can I, as an educator, do about it? Honestly, not much: I can only impact 20-40 people per semester. So I focus on them and let the rest fade into the background.

    I'm not sure how much autonomy you have- surely you have a set curriculum to follow, but I bet that you have some flexibility on how you deliver it. For example, if you ran the second activity but changed 'moon' to 'earth', the exercise would make a lot more sense to more people. But that doesn't really matter: the essential part of that kind of learning activity is the setup. You must tell the students why this activity is important, so important that it's taking up time you could be spending doing something else, and you must be able to connect the activity with the subject(s) being studied- and that's not always to easy to figure out. Explaining energy conversion (the cork gun)- and that includes explaining why it's important to learn about energy conversion- to 2nd graders is very different than explaining the concept to 11th graders.

    You are not off your rocker, you're just turning into a cranky old dude :) (or dudette, I don't know...)
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2017
  10. Sep 14, 2017 #9
    Is the purpose of education to learn for the joy and satisfaction that comes from understanding things, or is it to render students employable in a high tech world? In my view, it should be both, but the teaching activities described do neither. Your story puts me in mind of Richard Feynman's volcano anecdote, and suggests this sort of thing has been happening since at least the mid-1960s.
  11. Sep 15, 2017 #10
    Your description of the activities you were forced to participate in reminds me very strongly of similar programs that take place in corporations, allegedly for the benefit of employees in middle management and on the front lines; but mostly meant to cajole them into "getting with the program," i.e. getting enthusiastic about changes that upper management has mandated but that middle management & customer-facing employees will have to do all the grunt work on, whether or not the changes are good ones. Anyone who has worked for any length of time in a cubicle job will recognize the ridiculous nature of these sorts of "workshops" and "team-building exercises" etc.; they are about indoctrination and not substance.

    The roots of such programs seem to be in organizational psychology (i.e. clinical psychology + sociology of large organizations), out of which arose consultants specializing in "change management" and "organizational development." You get all kinds of silly stuff. Often (I can't say always, but often) of very little substance - just dog and pony shows that deliberately evade the actual challenges, because those actual challenges ain't so easy to meet. In education, my teacher friends have told me for many years now that federally mandated programs such as No Child Left Behind don't do much good & can do harm; but I get this second hand and don't know the issues directly myself. I do agree very much w/ @Andy Resnick's various points about how the political demands are at odds w/ the time and effort required in actual teaching & the difficulty of measuring outcomes that really matter.

    For more on why management typically thinks it has to trick employees into being happy, see Wikipedia on Change management and also Organization development, a.k.a. organizational development.

    Also see What is organization development?, from the web site for the Organization Development Network, a professional association; their description of OD is both accurate and unintentionally revealing:

    "Organization Development is an effort that is:
    • Planned
    • Organization-wide
    • Managed from the top
    • Increase organization effectiveness and health
    • Through planned interventions in the organization's 'processes,' using behavioral-science knowledge"
    Fractured grammar aside, the above suggests that from the OD perspective, middle management and front-line workers are not much more than lab rats. The language used by consultants to describe the benefits for employees tends toward the benevolent and humanistic - but you will notice that no one is squeezing senior management or the board of directors into an auditorium where they are divided into teams to construct parachutes for little plastic army men out of bags of junk, or make up silly skits or songs to perform on stage, or whatever.
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2017
  12. Sep 15, 2017 #11
    P.S. Great scene from the comedy TV show "Slings & Arrows" about a corporate workshop. The show revolves around a financially endangered Shakespeare rep theater; one of the ways they raise a little extra cash is to run team-building workshops for corporations. In this segment, the deeply troubled (i.e. crazy) new artistic director of the theater has agreed to run such a workshop for a group of cubicle workers from a plastics company:

    Link here to Youtube clip of scene, at 6:20 min
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2017
  13. Sep 15, 2017 #12
    As a mid-level educational administrator, my philosophy was to 1) hire good people (teachers) 2) give them what they need 3) stay out of their way. I also worked pretty hard running top cover - keeping others in the larger organization and government out of their way also. Every public educational institution is already saddled by way too many bureaucratic requirements. Adding more never helps. But if you have good people (teachers who care about outcomes, are competent to assess them, and know what they are doing) who have what they need and are unburdened by bureaucratic stupidity, a lot of learning is gonna happen, and outcomes will be pretty good. But most of the bureaucracy comes in under the guise of accountability, but in the process we rob the teachers of the authority they really need to succeed.

    In modern day America, the bureaucrats have turned education into a mandate to make bricks without straw, and then we're surprised when the teachers and schools are mostly fooling the bureaucrats by pretending to make bricks.
  14. Sep 15, 2017 #13
    Fortunately I am given almost unlimited flexibility, at least within reason. They have let me make physics into a two year program so that we don't have to cover every topic with razor thin timelines. There is no curriculum other than a couple very general objectives that amount to "teach physics." So I get to take my time, do lab after lab, and then explain how it all connects together. My school has been great from that perspective.
  15. Sep 15, 2017 #14
    Accurate and concise :)

    Excerpted from one of the few management books I've found to be worth anything, "The New Plague" by W.L. Livingston.
    It was my introduction to H. Ross Ashby and his law of requisite variety, and one of the few acronyms that have stuck in my head over the years (POSIWID - the Purpose of the System is What It Does). One of Livingston's main themes is that while bureaucratic hierarchies operate well enough when presented with linear, easy-to-solve (what he termed 'Track A' ) problems, they are doomed to bollocks up the works when encountering complex, non-linear 'Track B' tasks.

    It seems to me few things are more 'Track B' than teaching.
  16. Sep 15, 2017 #15
    That book must not have done well. No full-text search on Amazon or Google Books, only available used, hardly any sellers. Would you recommend it? I sometimes like interesting books about how things go wrong - e.g. Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows includes a long laundry list of the ways organizations & societies can misunderstand a complex system and as a result mis-prescribe. The word "purpose" shows up throughout that book as fundamental to systems.
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2017
  17. Sep 15, 2017 #16
    As you've discerned, it wasn't a best-seller, and The New Plague has several marks against it. Although it is readable, the typeface is strongly reminiscent of what my Commodore 1526 dot matrix printer spit out, Bill Livingston writes like the mechanical engineer he is, the artwork is an acquired taste, and doubtless his views about management ruffled more than a few feathers. For the most part, however, his observations circa 1985 regarding organizational malfunction remain depressingly valid to this day, his prescriptions appear equally valid, and has earned my recommendation.

    Thanks! I've added "Thinking in Systems: A Primer" to my list for the next time I go on a book buying jag. ;)
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