Without mathematics, there’s nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers. – Shakuntala Devi
Ask most people what their worst subject was in either elementary or secondary school, and over 75 percent of respondents would list Math as it.
This leads to the question of how to change how students are taught math and science. A lot has been said about the current challenges we face in terms of how students learn those subjects. The ideas laid out by educators in textbooks and lesson plans become stale when given to the students. One question my students asked continually was: Are we really going to use this in the real world?
Our ultimate goal is to answer back in the affirmative that: Yes we are going to use it, and here is how. It is no easy feat to redo how math and science are taught – from the way teachers have been previously trained to the engrained resistance to the subjects over the years.
This is why STEM education is a welcome development by those who desire relevance to drive more engagement by students. The key thing is to focus on the cross-curricular connections and the application of mathematics to science and other subjects, while maintaining the integrity of the mathematics learning goals. In too many cases this is not being done.
At a lot of the events that I have been invited to recently, I have had to address the questions by school administrators and educators on how to introduce a STEM programme int their school curriculum, with fluidity. It is clear to me that our teachers will eventually get to the place where integration occurs seamlessly across the curriculum and the focus of our curriculum units get revisited. Teachers who teach just math or science seem to be struggling with an interdisciplinary approach, and implementation will be a lot more difficult. STEM curriculums should integrate math, science, technology, and engineering curriculums and not keep them as stand alones. Implementation will take lots of professional development for teachers and management support by administrators.
As an educator who taught mathematics at various levels from grade 6 to tertiary institutions, I agree that there is a strong need to ensure that mathematics is taught logically and deeply. I understand the worries that “STEM-ifying” the classroom can lead to a deterioration of the quality of maths education. We undoubtedly do not want that to happen.
I do need us to see the beauty in STEM education. The centre of it is the transformation in higher education and in the workplace that is genuinely based on integration across the disciplines, being able to work in an interdisciplinary environment, and being able to understand how disciplines connect and support one another. Mathematics is the epicentre of it all, as it is essential to every other discipline.
Well done STEM activities grant us a greater opportunity than ever before to preempt the question, “When am I ever going to use this?”
Maintaining the integrity of our learning standards is our responsibility as educators. At the Agbami STEM Symposium recently by Chevron for the year 2017, I had to address the question: “I need a STEM programme that doesn’t ignore Biology because it is important for our kids to know.” I argued that already a high quality Biology course is a STEM program, as Biology is a part of science. This led me to realise that there is a lot of misunderstanding over the definition of what STEM education encompasses, and that request was driven by the belief that integration is the defining characteristic of a STEM program. In actuality, high quality science and math programmes that support STEM through their connections to appropriate applications and integration of technology is our ultimate goal.
The math taught in the school must be on point grade level, with conceptual understanding stressed, rather than a focus on math as a tool to solve various disjointed applications, or without proper sequence; then the “STEM program” fails the fundamental need.
Mathematics is an integral part of STEM, yet we need to be careful not to neglect the full development of students’ mathematical understanding in order to integrate STEM “activities” into an already overpacked curriculum.
In addition, STEM education places a lot of emphasis on learning mathematics for the workplace and for the scientific and technical communities.
Let us remember that mathematics is the focal point of life; we need it for social justice, and to empower personal lives. Mathematics is an important part of cultural heritage, including an understanding of the multiple contributions that various cultures have made to mathematics. The purposes for teaching and learning mathematics are at the heart of our curriculum during an era that emphasises STEM preparation.
The mathematics design principle of an effective STEM programme that builds mathematics understanding is that it is designed to develop the content and practices that characterie effective mathematics programmes, while maintaining the integrity of mathematics. Other design principles, for example, curricular connections and the appropriate integration of technology, are merely vehicles to ensure students learn important mathematics at a deep level and are confident in their ability to use mathematics to be empowered in their lives.
We need to support ALL of our students in developing a constructive mathematics identity – one that imbibes a high sense of agency and a deep understanding of mathematics.
As such, advocacy for STEM education is advocacy for mathematics education, and it is also equally true that advocacy for mathematics education is advocacy for STEM education.
As you “STEM-up” your classroom, I urge you to keep mathematics at the centre of STEM education through the following two suggestions:
(1) Brief STEM tasks can provide authentic assessments for deep understanding of mathematics. If students cannot transfer their understanding of maths into new contexts, they don’t really understand the maths well;
(2) STEM tasks can be brief, say 30 minutes of group effort to compare alternatives. STEM does not always rely on long-term, equipment-dependent projects like building bridges.
Lets keep the M in STEM bold and critical for our students!!!
Help us with our mission to bring about change for our students. Please contact me to see what we can do to bring about the desired transformation that we all desire for our children to be future ready!!!
Adetola Salau; Educator / Speaker / Author/ Social Entrepreneur / Innovator
She is an Advocate of STEM Education and is Passionate about Education reform. She is an innovative thinker and strives for our society & continent as a whole to reclaim it’s greatness. She runs an educational foundation with the mission to transform education.