"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

When do we start?

So many people have theories about the appropriate time to start science and engineering education that it drives me a bit bonkers.  Bringing in STEM-focused initiatives seems to be a growing face of educational innovations, reflected recently in this news story from Richfield, MN.

In particular one of the comments struck me as a grounds for considering STEM education

As a scientist, With degrees in engineering and computer science I can tell you that you cannot teach any meaningful science until 10th grade. Even then it’s marginal. These teachers don’t know one whit about real science. Further engineers and technical people are the first ones laid off (after the ‘project’ is completed) and receive mediocre salaries compared to the sales and marketing staff.

CLAIM: You cannot teach any meaningful science until 10th grade. Even then it’s marginal.

COUNTER: I think this comment presupposes a definition of “meaningful” science that refers to analytical science, rooted in accepting current mathematical models of the world around us.  Therefore, until you have mastered the basics of algebra, do not even bother teaching students science.  And really, “meaningful” science has calculus pre-requisites.  This viewpoint does have some legitimate considerations, particularly when one considers that Isaac Newton invented calculus to explain his observations of how things moved.

Yet, we do not have observation-based science in school.  This fact strikes me as most unfortunate because science, in my humble estimation, requires learning how to see the things that count while simultaneously making an argument for why what you see should count.  It is of scientific interest to learn how to verify that a car moves across the table with a constant velocity; a student who has the ball on a slight incline who makes the observations that the ball is actually accelerating should be commended.  A refined sense of when an-otherwise-anomalous occurrence counts separates experts from the novices.  Yet, unfortunately school science tends to regard assorted canonical norms of science (which is particularly true when we start talking about high school level science.  If you do not believe that a canon drives scientific instruction, take a look at the learning objectives associated with AP science classes.)

CLAIM: These teachers don’t know one whit about real science.

COUNTER: While I disagree with the commentor’s wording, it does have a ring of truth, particularly when we investigate why people get into elementary education.  Elementary educators are notorious for expressing discomfort around math and science topics.  Yet elementary educators are often expected to be all things to all people.  These educators establish students on a broad academic footing while simultaneously working with (largely) the same students all day.  To me, I regard it as somewhat of a marvel that any elementary educator rises to the ranks of affirmed specialist in any area, let alone considerations of math and science.

Yet, we tend to rely on in-service professional development to help teachers expand their skill sets in the classroom.  And herein lies a considerable challenge because we can easily default towards “activities that work” rather than “integrated instructional design.”  If you add to this mix teachers who are uncomfortable with the content to begin with, then you will likely encounter teachers who take the activities without the assorted pedagogy.  Therefore, when I read articles where teachers learn how to “do science” with flashlights and balloons, I cannot help but be skeptical.  Some trends in professional development involve sending paired instructors to the workshop to help when rubber meets the road of implementation, using a wiki-source to develop community, and asking teachers to make a multiple year commitment to a training program.  We also might need to take a good hard look at everything we expect our elementary teachers to be experts.

CLAIM: Further engineers and technical people are the first ones laid off (after the ‘project’ is completed) and receive mediocre salaries compared to the sales and marketing staff.

COUNTER: I think this statement gets to the heart of current discussions about what majoring in a technical field is good for anyway.  And incidentally, I also think it speaks to the need to reconsider technical education.  As Paul Polak recently said, “To solve the other 75% of the [technical] problem, an effective way to put these tools in the hands of millions of last mile customers had to be designed. This is as true of design in the West as it is for developing countries.”  In other words, it is one thing to analyze and build something; it is something else entirely to have a developed approach be a solution.

We mistakenly assume that things are “done” when they are far from it.  Bad design is not a solution inasmuch as it is a problem needing to be solved.


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