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STEM Possibilities

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Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is about children and careers, about the economy and education, about common core standards, testing and reform. It is not the panacea for education's problems but it does deserve a place in the middle of the table as solutions are engaged. Last year 1,600 people...educators, corporate and nonprofit leaders, governmental officials...gathered in Dallas to support the STEM movement. The numbers, in and of themselves, should give it significance. Another gathering is being planned for Austin this summer. Its momentum is building. What is happening here? Is it, as Microsoft Executive VP Brad Smith said, a "genuine grass roots movement"? Let's consider for a moment that it is.

Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik is currently part of the STEM action. In conjunction with DeVry University, she was a 2013 representative for National HerWorld ® Month, a program designed to encourage girls to make a difference in the world through STEM. Women are vastly underrepresented among professionals in STEM careers. So, why choose the actress as the spokesperson this year. Yes, she plays the part of scientist Amy Farrah Fowler on the popular TV show, but Bialik actually holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of California - Los Angeles. She credits a tutor with opening the world of science for her and she is giving it back to teenage girls in the way she can.

The Brookings Institute released a report in March, entitled Education Technology: The Next Generation. Authors West and Bleiberg observed: "One possible virtue of digital technology is the cost savings. During the Great Recession, the education service industry lost over one million jobs. State and local governments cut education spending, and this had ripple effects throughout the sector. Today educators from universities to elementary schools face an even more difficult task than before with fewer available resources...In this situation, educational technologies take on increased importance as they seek to help over-burdened teachers deploy the next generation of assistive technologies." They go on to discuss how technological options create new uses for games and robots and stealth assessments. If they present the possibility of new ways to conduct data collection and assessments. Why wouldn't we be paying attention?

The movement has become a bit controversial with a new report published by the Economic Policy Institute, bringing up some serious considerations. Their report "Guest Workers in the High-Skills US Labor Market" tells a story of students doing better in their STEM studies while the market is a very small part of our workforce (4.4%). Even this indicates that something has begun to shift.

Critics fear that to embrace STEM means to exclude the whole child, to diminish value for the humanities, the arts, history and literature and creatively. Certainly we see that as a possibility for uninformed implementation. But, just as being a PhD scientist has not prevented Bialik from being an actress, it did not preclude the physican William Carlos Williams from becoming one of our nation's most noteworthy 20th century poets. It is not either/or. We cannot lead and allow for dueling educational priorities. The list of careers associated with STEM on O*NET OnLine includes everything from engineers to park naturalists to museum curators to geographers. This can offer an inclusive solution.

In schools where STEM is alive, it is infused into everything else. Lines blur as STEM is both a content area and a teaching methodology, utilized by students and teachers alike. It is a unifying theme for projects in history and literature and it transforms performances in music and drama. If it can do this for children in poverty and close achievement gaps and gender gaps too, why wouldn't we welcome it? If it contains the possibility for resolving some of the problems associated with standardized testing and our current budget limitations, why wouldn't we become advocates? If it brings us new support from the business world and it can do all the rest of this, isn't this a worthy bandwagon?

As leaders we must consider everything and continue to be sure we lead programming that prepares our students for every possibility. We must invest in what we understand and we can't possibly understand... the unknown world in which they will spend their earning years. STEM is not just a subject or combination of subjects. It can become a new way of working as educators together and with our students. As we lead our schools through these rough waters, we need to stand with integrity and tell the truth - we do not have all the answers, and in some cases, we only know children and what data and research and futurists tell us. We do not know even know what jobs will exist when next fall's kindergartners graduate from college. We always remember that, in the end, we must offer those opportunities that allow our students to develop their capacities to successfully maneuver through a world that is rapidly changing.

Resources:
The State of Stem and Jobs
US News STEM Conference Links Education and Jobs

Correction: In the original version of this post Mayim Bialik was referred to as Amy Bialik in error.

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