By Yvonne Ng, January guest blogger
As a new mother, I’m seeing STEM education efforts through a slightly different lens. It is important for me to be sure that my son and his classmates have every opportunity to be employable in our high tech future (so he can get a good paying job, move out of the house, and if I raise him right, tend to my husband and me in our old age!).
In Minnesota, this is particularly important, not just for our bastion of biotech firms, but also for manufacturing and engineering companies. Having conducted interviews for my husband’s engineering services company, I have seen firsthand how difficult it is to find candidates with the required technology and education.
The need for a local STEM talent pool will only increase. At a recent medical convention, the buzz was about “onshoring.” China’s rising fuel costs and standard of living is bringing manufacturing jobs back to the States. This means that our educational system must produce quality STEM professionals — thus employable in the future will mean “STEM ready.”
However, I am concerned that the indicators used by these initiatives lack a key feature. Don’t get me wrong: the reading and math benchmarks make sense, though I know there is debate about whether the timing is soon enough for math to intervene. However, the items are all very, well, “heady” while studies show that it is experience in STEM related activities that affect competence, confidence and comfort — especially in currently underrepresented populations of females and those from financially challenged homes. I’m concerned that without full appreciation of certain experiences in STEM-readiness, we may unintentionally leave our population largely untapped.
For example, spatial, not mathematics, tests are considered the best indicator for success in STEM areas [Root-Bernstein, Can women be creative scientists?]. Spatial is defined as folding 2D shapes into 3D, rotating objects in one’s mind, imagining mechanical motion, and seeing spatial patterns and relationships [Newcombe, Picture this]. These are developed mainly through hands-on manipulation and investigation of devices — activities that often happen before even entering school.
Experience with tools and technology are one of the missing link for girls which prevents them from experimenting, and thus innovating with technology, a necessary characteristic of an engineer [Schreuders, Pipeline or personal preference: women in engineering]. Men cite having played with these at a young age, which makes many women feel that they cannot catch up and results in them constantly feeling like an imposter engineer, computer scientist, etc. [Margolis, Unlocking the Clubhouse].
So is a child who lacks the opportunities to play with and develop these skills doomed? Not with good teaching. Effective educators teach mathematics with tangible objects to create concrete physical experiences in the classroom and link to the abstract concepts of mathematics. Inquiry experiences in class give children who have limited at-home experiences with nature a leg up. Key art and hands-on experiences can improve spatial skills.
Indirect evidence seems to support this: Girls have scored noticeable improvement in the standardized test for mathematics over the past 20 years [Monastersky, Primed for Numbers]. Students struggling with engineering drawing classes (notably, most of the women students) saw noticeable improvement when spatial skills were explicitly taught [Sorby, A course in spatial visualization and its impact on the retention of female engineering students].
An effective teacher is the link between sound curriculum and the individual child. He/she determines the strengths and gaps in students and appropriately enhances their education to unlock the potential of each student. In every in-service class I have taught, this desire to help their students achieve is at the heart of every successful teacher.
The United States is one of the few places that gives — in theory — every student the opportunity to prepare for college. The down side is that we put more burden on the teacher to provide equal access through education, despite the fact that some children start school never having visited a park, a zoo or a museum. Some have never ridden bikes, taken apart or fixed a gadget, or made paper creations with scissors, tape or glue.
These missing experiences with nature, the designed world, and tools and technology are what teachers must identify, accommodate and measure as they try to continue to give an equal education to all. Key indicators must: 1) include some evaluation of experiences that develop a child’s spatial skills and 2) be measured earlier so we keep the STEM door open to more students rather than play catch up (or worse, resign to missing the boat) in middle or high school.