Necessities for improving STEM education

George O. Zimmerman

For years many of us have deplored the state of STEM education in the United States. (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.) The TIMSS Study1 ranks the United States fourth graders in 11th place in mathematics and eighth graders in 15th place in 2003. The scores were somewhat better in science: U.S. students were in 6th and 8th place.1 The 2007 statistics are similar in mathematics: 11th in fourth grade and 15th in eighth grade; in science we came in at 8th and 11th, respectively, behind countries such as Latvia, Hungary, Slovenia, and others. 

Despite many initiatives by the federal government2, scientific organizations3, and numerous efforts by teachers and local school districts, we still see newspaper articles such as "CEO caught in hiring dilemma,"4 describing the difficulty of the CEO of the Raytheon Corporation to find qualified people to fill its technical staff positions. Such shortfalls exist despite the current economic downturn.

I suggest that STEM education in the U.S. will not improve until we recognize that our children enter school with a handicap, and this handicap is exacerbated by the ways we try to convey and treat STEM subjects in the early grades. We need to revamp our curriculum to address this problem. Such restructuring will not necessarily increase the STEM workforce, but it will make for a better educated workforce.

We need to recognize that our students enter school with a handicap as far as STEM education is concerned, and that handicap is caused by the presence of ubiquitous technology, which, despite making our lives easier, hinders our children from learning the skills that are prerequisite for STEM careers. Those skills are the practical and intuitive knowledge of arithmetic, weight, mass, and volume, among others. Because that technology replaces many of the necessary processes such as counting, weighing, exchanging money and such, our children are not exposed to activities, which in previous years were necessary in everyday life. These are still necessary for STEM learning. The Atlantic magazine asked: "Is Google making us stoopid?"5 It is not only Google but much of our modern technology that contributes to this lack of early authentic experiences. This handicap is often overlooked by educators, and our children are taught assuming that that handicap does not exist. Our STEM woes will not be fixed until this handicap is recognized and that a remedy for it be found in the curriculum. In less technologically advanced countries this particular handicap is lessened because of the experiences of the daily routines necessary for life.

How are we to understand the existence of this handicap? An analogy is that of driving a car. It is necessary to know how to unlock the car, start it, and know where the steering wheel, accelerator, and brake pedal are, as well as how to turn on the lights. No knowledge is required of the internal combustion engine, the alternator or ignition system, battery, or the computer system that controls the functioning of the car. Most people can get along well without this knowledge as long as nothing goes wrong.

If something does go wrong and we need a repair, it often takes only the knowledge of a phone number or an e-mail address to get help to fix the problem. The repair is often a replacement of a part, which is done by a technician whose knowledge may be confined to which part to replace given certain symptoms. Some technicians do not really understand the principles on which the appliance or instrument – a car in this case – is based. Ordinary people, much less children, appear not to need a knowledge of STEM in their daily lives, and if people have technological problems, all they simply need to know is how to contact someone who can fix the problem. In contrast, it is necessary for STEM teachers and learners know the foundation and principles, both qualitative and quantitative, on which our technology is based.

We live in a non-quantitative society. Much of the older STEM workforce grew up in an environment quite different from the present. If you grew up 50 or more years ago, you went to a grocery store, chose the produce, weighed and bagged it, and went to the cashier to pay. The grocer would reweigh the items, figure out the cost, often writing on the bag with a pencil, and you would pay with cash, either by giving the correct change or making sure that you received the correct change back. These experiences gave us a sense of mass, weight, and quantity. The consumer had to use arithmetic to make sure that he or she or the grocer did not get shortchanged. Similar skills were acquired by shopping for other goods, such as clothing when it was made to order. 

These experiences were still available and necessary a few decades ago in Europe, when supermarkets were still a rarity. I am reminded of my experience in Holland, where I spent a sabbatical. I had to go to a butter shop to buy butter, a cheese shop to buy cheese, and a bakery to buy bread.

Today, we go to a supermarket, take a box, bottle, packaged vegetable, or fruit off the shelf, put it into a shopping cart, bring it to the checkout counter where it is scanned and payment is made with a credit card. There is usually no encounter with weight, mass or numbers, or any other physical and mental attributes necessary for STEM education. Nowadays even those experiences are not familiar to some of our urban children and some schools institute "Field Trips" to the supermarket for their students. 

Although today's technology makes our lives easier, it deprives students of the early experiences that would help them to master the skills on which they are tested for adequate performance in STEM subjects. We test our students about numbers and quantities which were necessary in the past for living in our society. Today those learning STEM subjects need visceral hands-on experience with the physical world, and this experience is lacking. A curriculum needs to be devised to bring back such experiences into the early grades.

This lack of early experiences is exacerbated by some of the latest educational practices and philosophy which embrace the notion that the teacher can get a better understanding of students' ways of thinking by encouraging them to express their preconceived ideas, without the teacher criticizing or daring to correct erroneous concepts, for fear that the student would be discouraged from further staying in the educational system. This practice, which is a version of the Socratic Method now being used by many teachers, may be detrimental to the teaching of essential facts about the world and accepted ways of thinking. It also hinders the development of reasoning necessary for the correct quantitative conclusions.

An additional hindrance is the teaching of advanced subjects, such as algebra and calculus, before the prerequisite arithmetic and manipulation of numbers has been adequately addressed. By 'putting the cart before the horse' students run into many difficulties in understanding STEM subjects.

An example of this philosophy is the following quotation from the Massachusetts Mathematics Teaching Standards6: "For children to develop confidence in their problem-solving abilities, teachers should be supportive in responding to "wrong" answers. In estimation, for instance, teachers should reassure children that being absolutely correct is unnecessary – children may need the opportunity to change their estimates as the activity evolves." A similar philosophy is expressed in the "Conceptual Framework for New Science Education,"7 although the latter also recommends a "hands on" curriculum which might improve our current STEM curriculum . 

We need to emphasize that correct answers matter. We should also teach some of the observations and theories on which science is based, and skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division before we ask students to reason about them. I recommend that only one arithmetic method be introduced initially, and one numerical system. (I suggest the decimal.) Only after students are familiar with one system can they analyze it and be introduced to other methods and systems by analogy. Without this fundamental knowledge, most students will flounder in the present STEM curriculum.

Our present situation might be compared to past educational reforms, which, taken to extremes, had negative outcomes for STEM education. In the preface to a physics text published in 1892,8 the authors write:

During the past decade the teaching of Physics in high schools and universities has undergone radical revision. The time-honored recitation method has gone out and the laboratory method has come in. As a natural reaction from the old regime, in which the teacher did everything, including the thinking, came the method of original discovery; the textbook was discarded and the pupil was set to rediscovering the laws of Physics. Time has shown the fallacy of such a method, and the successful teacher, … has already discovered the necessity of a clearly formulated, well digested statement of facts, a scientific confession of faith, in which the learner is to be thoroughly grounded before essaying to explore for himself. The maxim, 'That only is knowledge which the pupil has reached as the result of experiment,' has been found to have its limitations. With no previous instruction, the young student comes to the work without any ideas touching what he is expecting to see … He has no training in drawing conclusions from his own experiments. He …will not be apt to discover little beyond his own ignorance, a result, it must be confessed, not necessarily without value. Before the pupil is in any degree fit to investigate a subject experimentally, he must have a clearly defined idea of what he is doing, an outfit of principles and data to guide him, and a good degree of skill in conducting an investigation.

A similar reform occurred in the 1960s when a number of interesting innovations were introduced but the reform also eliminated or eclipsed the teaching of some fundamentals. The educational reforms of the 1960s introduced advanced mathematical concepts such as probability and algebra, and scientific concepts such as atomic physics, the genome, and cellular biology into the lower grades. These concepts came at the cost of neglecting to teach the fundamentals.9 The creators of those curricula did not realize that they themselves possessed a vast fundamental knowledge to draw on in order to grasp the wonderful concepts and insights which they wanted to teach the students. To the curriculum creators those concepts were simple and obvious. Because the students lacked this background, the curricula failed in their goals, for the most part. Reasoning without the knowledge of the subject to which the reasoning is directed does not work.

I have observed by talking to education professors, teachers, curriculum developers and by reading current curricular materials, both paper and web-based, that there is a tendency to use the Socratic Method, in which we quiz the students rather than teach them. We need to teach students about the world around them. Students need to understand the facts about the physical world to give them more practical skills, and to learn some fundamentals, such as arithmetic. To prepare our students to learn STEM subjects we need to re-reform our elementary school curricula to include programs to acquaint students with their world, rather than only with the technology. We cannot expect students to reinvent all the knowledge of the civilized world by themselves.

In summary, to make STEM education more effective we need a greater emphasis on practical skills, we need to teach arithmetic before we teach algebra and mathematical reasoning by teaching initially a single method of numbers and procedures, and by postponing the use of the Method until students and teachers have enough practical and fundamental knowledge of facts to base it on. 

1. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, NCES 2005-005 (December 2004) reports the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
2. See
3.; also see the AAPT website.
4. Hiawatha Bray, "CEO caught in hiring dilemma," Boston Globe, June 23, 2010.
5. Nicholas Carr, "Is Google making us Stoopid?," The Atlantic 302 (1), 56—63 (July/August 2008).
6. "Kindergarten learning experiences,".
7. Board of Science Education, Center for Education, The National Academies.
8. H. S. Cathart and H. N. Chute, The Elements of Physics (Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1892).
9. See the Algebra Project at the Kaput Center of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth

George O. Zimmerman is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.