American Educational Culture: No Seeds, No Stems

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have made countless contributions to modern society. They help to clear the fog around the past, present, and future, while simultaneously bestowing society with innovations from their ventures. Americans, in particular, are major beneficiaries of STEM and are often included on the short list of world powers that excel in its related fields. From putting a man on the moon to putting a phone in every hand, America has a storied relationship with STEM that may lead one to believe Americans place great importance on STEM education. The sad reality is that America is in the midst of confronting an overall deterioration in performance when it comes to this area of education. This intellectual backslide can be attributed to numerous factors of social and cultural origins. Americans have experienced a fracture in their relationship with STEM due to under-qualified educators, culturally and socially reinforced stigma, and insufficient engagement by instructors in STEM experiences.

Without properly qualified teachers, no society can consistently produce qualified students. It would be ill-advised to go to an art teacher for help with math homework. The reason for this is not that the art teacher is incapable of helping in another subject, rather, that the math teacher would possess a deeper knowledge of the subject-matter. Oddly enough, this simple principle is being violated throughout the educational system. A congressional research service report highlights some of these instances, citing “Among middle-school teachers, 51.5% of those who taught math and 40.0% of those who taught science did not have a major or minor in these subjects”(Kuenzi 10). Selecting educators who are not well-versed in the subjects they teach is counterintuitive at best. Educators are not the sole reason for the decline in STEM education, although more appropriately assigning roles to qualified teachers would undoubtedly have positive results. Even the most proficient educator will be unable to demand interest and effort from students that are subject to the stigma of STEM education.

The stigma of STEM has long pervaded American culture and helped many discard the notion of importance it once carried. This stigma manifests itself socially by identifying higher performance in STEM with negatively charged terms such as nerd, geek, and dork. The culture of America has engendered negative dispositions and beliefs surrounding STEM education. Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama found in their research that “One deeply embedded cultural belief in the United States is that math achievement largely depends on native aptitude or ability.” This belief can single-handedly put an end to any pursuit of STEM knowledge. “In contrast, people in other countries, such as Japan, believe that achievement comes from effort” (87). This dichotomy speaks volumes to American performance in STEM education and provides insight into Japanese success. This learned helplessness is detrimental to American STEM success and sorely needs addressing.

The first step for America should be admitting that the current dominant belief system is fundamentally flawed. Beliefs are not concrete and can be disproven over time. The mounting evidence shows that young children naturally develop foundations of STEM. From “why” questions to young infants having the intuition that objects will need supporting so they do not fall; young children possess a knowledge that includes concepts from physics, biology, and chemistry (Clements and Sarama 77). Once more Americans can come to understand that the stigma attributed to STEM is nothing more than a misconception, the belief can be chipped away from generation to generation, until the American belief aligns with that of the Japanese. Altering the mentality Americans have around STEM is only half the battle. Since all students require some level of experiential learning to develop critical thinking skills, it is crucial that STEM experiences are pertinent, especially when it comes to young children.

Sufficient exposure to and guided engagement in STEM experiences, has the potential to pique students’ curiosity and curb the negative disposition many Americans feel when it comes to STEM. Through repeated interactions with the components of these subjects students are afforded the ability to see how vast the world of STEM can be.  Clements and Sarama found in their studying of early grade education that “Teachers spend less time in science learning centers (tables or areas stocked with books and other materials that promote exploration) than in other learning centers, and they rarely offer science-related activities in any context, either planned or spontaneous”(78). The curiosity and exploration components of STEM engagement are integral to forging meaningful personal relationships with these daunting subjects. The world perpetually offers exposure and engagement with STEM; however, when these experiences lack explanation and context, they become limited as a means of increasing interest and education for any student. Taping two-liter bottles together to create a cyclone when they are flipped may very well engage young students, but without the proper explanation of why that happens, it becomes nothing more than a fun crafting experience. If students are habituated with sufficient and guided engagement in STEM materials by adequate teachers, the American stigma held by most may very well be a thing of the past.

Knowledge is power, and currently Americans are lacking knowledge as to exactly what needs to change both socially and institutionally in order for America to produce superior students and teachers in STEM education. The quality of American STEM education is a multi-faceted issue and is still being studied by numerous researchers today. Still too many groups remain underrepresented in STEM education and careers like women, ethnic minorities, and low-income individuals who have struggled to break into the realm of STEM (MacPhee et. al. 347). One glance at a recent Pew study reveals just how far America still has to go in its on-again, off-again relationship with STEM: “Respondents were asked, ‘If a current high school student asked you for advice on what sort of career they should pursue, what would you tell them.’” Thirty-four percent of people opted to guide students into STEM fields (Strauss).

While this may not seem an abysmal statistic, consider that of this thirty-four percent, nineteen percent would advise students to get jobs in healthcare. Healthcare, while certainly a noble field, is a small piece of the puzzle in relation to the myriad of STEM opportunities out in the world. As time progresses, STEM education and careers will also progress in their importance to the world at large. Americans tend to pride themselves on being leaders of the world when it comes to many things. Unchecked, Americans deterioration in STEM education opens the doors for other countries to surpass the U.S. in all STEM endeavors. Students possess the capacity for growth and improvement, and especially in youth are comparable to fertile soil awaiting the seeds of knowledge to be sown. If America does not ensure the highest quality of care for our ‘intellectual garden’ then there will be no seeds or STEMs, and unfortunately it seems that is how increasingly more Americans want life to remain. Through conscious effort, America can re-establish its waning reputation in STEM education and potentially, become a world leader in this all-important discipline of the future. Henry Ford was attributed with saying, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” and unfortunately Americans are currently on the losing side of this adage. Maybe with time, America can learn what Henry Ford knew many years ago and complete the arduous journey to reanimate the wilted, faded expanse that used to be American educational culture.

Works Cited

Clements, Douglas H. and Julie Sarama. “Math, Science, and Technology in the Early Grades.”        Future of Children, vol. 26, no. 2, Fall2016, pp. 75-94. EBSCOhost,search.ebscohost.com

Kuenzi, Jeffrey J., “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education: Background, Federal Policy, and Legislative Action” (2008). Congressional Research Service Reports. 35. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/crsdocs/35

MacPhee, David, et al. “Academic Self-Efficacy and Performance of Underrepresented STEM Majors: Gender, Ethnic, and Social Class Patterns.” Analyses of Social Issues & Public Policy, vol. 13, no. 1, Dec. 2013, pp. 347-369. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/asap.12033.

Strauss, Mark. “About a third of Americans would tell a high schooler seeking career advice to enter a STEM-related field.”http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/26/about-a-third-of-americans-would-tell-a-high-schooler-seeking-career-advice-to-enter-a-stem-related-field/

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Brad Miller was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago and has lived in Colorado since 2012. He loves thrills and hopes to complete his skydiving license someday when he is not a poor college student. He is a vegetarian that won’t accost anyone who is not (yes, we exist), loves learning anything, and appreciates when someone tells him something is in his teeth.

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