Our posts this year have been a bit sparse as Michelle and I have spent most of our free time continuing work on Model with Mathematics, our text on the art of mathematical modeling under development with Math Solutions. But, I was inspired by the joint release of the position statement on STEM Education by NCSM and NCTM, and thought it was worth commenting on this very worthy attempt to bring some clarity and coherence to STEM education and especially to the role of mathematics in STEM education. The key position statement is brief and worth repeating here:
The National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recognize the importance of addressing STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in PK–12 education and affirm the essential role of a strong foundation in mathematics as the center of any STEM education program. In addition to integrative experiences connecting the disciplines of STEM, students need a strong mathematics foundation to succeed in STEM fields and to make sense of STEM-related topics in their daily lives. Thus, any STEM education program (including out-of-school activities) should support and enhance a school’s mathematics program, ensuring that instructional time for mathematics is not compromised. In addition, any STEM activity claiming to address mathematics should do so with integrity to the grade level’s mathematics content and mathematical practices.
While I’m not entirely sure that I would put mathematics at the “center of any STEM education program,” I absolutely applaud the notion that effective STEM education requires a strong foundation in mathematics and applaud the notion that any STEM education program should support and complement a school’s mathematics program. The argument put forth in this position statement is spot on – a strong foundation in mathematics is essential to STEM, either viewed from an integrative viewpoint or from a purely disciplinary viewpoint, and hence STEM education programs developed in schools should support the strengthening of this foundation.
The NCSM/NCTM document containing the position statement above expands upon this statement and contains a list of recommended action steps for policy makers, teachers, curriculum developers, and informal educators. Today, I want to look at a few parts of the remainder of the document in a bit more detail, expand upon a few points, and attempt to tie some of the thinking offered in this document back to the teaching and learning of mathematical modeling and some other ideas around STEM that we’ve previously explored in this space.
To me, a key part of the document is the section titled “Envisioning STEM Education.” This section asks and attempts to answer the key questions – What is STEM? and What should an effective STEM program look like? The authors outline and contrast the often conflicting viewpoints on these questions, ranging from the “anytime you’re doing any of the four disciplines you’re doing STEM” perspective of authors like Larson to the “STEM is an integrative meta-discipline” perspective that we’ve taken in this space in previous posts. I again applaud the authors of this document for finding an effective middle ground, essentially recognizing that the disciplines of S, T, E, and M provide the necessary foundation for integrative activities that comprise STEM and encouraging the development of STEM programs that do both. In the particular case of mathematics, that means encouraging STEM programs that both support the development of foundational mathematical knowledge and support integrative activities that involve multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking. My only criticism of this section is that I don’t believe that the authors push far enough regarding the nature of the role that mathematics should play in integrative STEM activities.
On this point, we find the authors stating:
Students may use mathematics or science to model problems from the aforementioned list as they develop creative approaches and solutions.
When incorporating mathematics as part of a STEM activity, it is important to ensure that the mathematics is consistent with standards for the targeted grade level(s) in terms of content as well as the level and kind of thinking called for.
An essential feature of integrative STEM activities should be that they support the individual disciplines addressed with integrity – using content from grade-appropriate standards that is taught in ways that support pedagogical recommendations from the disciplines.
I don’t disagree with any of these particular statements. They are all certainly important points, but I don’t believe they go far enough and I do believe they leave the door open to the continued development of what I see as particularly poor and in fact counter-productive STEM activities. The essential piece that I believe is still missing is the notion that in a truly excellent integrative STEM activity, knowledge and use of mathematics is essential for obtaining a solution. If students are simply asked to use mathematics to model some aspect of a STEM activity but do not need to use what they’ve learned through such modeling to achieve their goal, mathematics will continue to feel “tacked on,” and the centrality of mathematics to STEM will be lost. Yes, the level of mathematics should be consistent with grade levels and yes, the STEM activities should support the teaching and learning of the disciplines, but, integrative STEM activities should also allow students to experience and understand precisely why these disciplines are foundational and central to STEM. This is, of course, challenging and it requires the careful design of STEM activities that not only illustrate individually the central practices of S, T, E, and M, but also illustrate the connections and interplay between these practices that is indeed essential for addressing problems such as climate change, the spread of disease, or space exploration. Mathematical modeling, in particular, is not only something that can be done when tackling an interdisciplinary challenge like climate change, but something that often must be done to make sense of the world and to make progress on such challenges.
In the section titled “STEM in Schools” the authors of the position statement point out a particular and very real obstacle faced by the K-12 community in designing and implementing effective STEM programs, including STEM programs that provide activities that genuinely allow students to experience the importance of mathematics in STEM. They note:
In terms of instruction, many teachers coming from mathematics and science backgrounds may find themselves assigned as integrative STEM teachers, often without any relevant coursework or adequate professional learning to prepare them for such an assignment.
Regardless, asking them to teach STEM in an integrative way without adequate background is likely to create new knowledge gaps and challenges and intensify the challenge of finding qualified teachers for mathematics and science classrooms.
Again, spot on. We know that most mathematics teacher education programs are not even designed to support teachers in the teaching and learning of mathematical modeling, let alone in the design and implementation of integrative STEM activities. We know that our mathematics teacher education programs are generally short on exposure to science and engineering. And, we know that there is sadly little to no time for practicing mathematics teachers to interact with and develop STEM programs and activities in conjunction with their science colleagues.
The NCSM/NCTM position statement ends with a set of “Recommended Actions.” I think these are excellent. I’d add a few more of my own though. Here they are:
Leaders and policymakers should:
- Provide opportunities for professional learning, both for pre-service and in-service teachers, that supports mathematics teachers in their role in the development and implementation of STEM education programs.
- Provide regular, structured, meaningful opportunities for mathematics and science teachers to learn together, work together, and experience the cross-disciplinary teamwork and collaboration expected of students in STEM activities.
Mathematics and teachers of STEM should:
- Whenever mathematics is included in an integrative STEM activity, make sure that mathematics is essential for achieving the goal of the activity.
- Seek and advocate for opportunities to collaborate with science colleagues to develop and implement cross-cutting activities in both science and mathematics classrooms that support STEM learning.
Program/curriculum developers should:
- Develop truly integrative STEM activities and curricula that require and support the development of a strong foundational knowledge of mathematics and science and allow students to experience not only the practices of the disciplines but especially the interplay between those practices.
Again, I applaud NCSM and NCTM for their development of this position statement and for their efforts to bring clarity to STEM education and to the essential role of mathematics in STEM. This is a huge step forward, and I congratulate the authors on their excellent work. I look forward to future iterations and continued development of STEM educational activities and programs that supports the teaching and learning of mathematics and allows all students to experience the importance of mathematics and especially the practice of mathematical modeling in addressing the problems that surround us.