HS Math & ELA: STEM integration is a social justice issue

With our growing interest in making classes relevant and engaging, I am increasingly concerned about the lag on STEM integration into the core high school classrooms.  I highly suspect that upon seeing the word “STEM,” robots and pipe cleaners come to mind; but that is not what needs to happen in high school core classes.

STEM includes ways of thinking and learning.  Not only does strategically selected technology and well organized collaboration enhance the learning experience, but students who are proficient with STEM skills will have advantages going into college and beyond.  Since all students are required to take ELA and math classes, those core teachers have the best opportunity to make sure every student has the information and skills they need to avoid being disadvantaged moving forward.  STEM inclusion is becoming a social justice issue.

Students who are aware of interesting and practical STEM careers can be more motivated to work in their core classes, knowing those cores are gateways to great futures.  A simple comparison of employment opportunities for journalists and opportunities for technical writers in terms of pay, environment, and availability are enough to inspire a student to take a few physics classes; and there is evidence of a relationship between students taking physics and later declaring STEM majors*.  But if those careers are not introduced in core classes, many students will not be aware.

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College classes typically use online quizzing and discussion boards.  Assignments are frequently uploaded, and digital research is expected.  Students who are not familiar with such practices are burdened beyond all the other new expectations the college experience presents.  Worse, students choose familiar majors that will not enable them to find decent jobs.

In the past, math teachers have avoided doing anything different because the curriculum was too tight to take risks.  However, curriculum aligned to the Common Core has changed that. Similarly, there has been a shift toward non-fiction in ELA classes that opens opportunities to learn how to read and write technical documentation (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.11-12.2).

HS math content, emphasis, and pedagogy was supposed to make a formidable shift with the advent of the CCSS.  But most of us have never done a modeling problem with our students because it is rarely made clear what exactly that means and how such problems  efficiently fit into our curriculum.  Few of us were trained to coach those, although it is possible to start small and get the hang of it.  Similarly, many ELA teachers are still clinging to their old faves to the neglect of student choice and  their need to be able to write and follow vocational documentation.

STEM inclusion is not about setting aside curriculum to build bridges out of toothpicks. Rather, it is about developing 21st Century skills within our students in the normal course of our subjects.  Caring teachers will do this when they are given the time and training to understand how.  Where are our leaders?

*Bottia, M. C., Stearns, C. E., Mickelson, C. R., Moller, S., Parker, A. D. (2015). The relationships among high school STEM learning experiences and students’ intent to declare and declaration of a STEM major in college. Teachers College Record, 117, 030304

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