STEM in 2020

Erin Lark

What is no longer true about STEM Education will hold our students back from the innovative futures we desperately need them to actualize if we insist on continuing to operate an antiquated version.  The good news is that there’s much that can be done to avoid building and maintaining barriers and instead promote pathways forward.  Homegrown graduates aren’t an idealized dream, they are a possibility we owe to our future generations.

One could argue that the National Science Foundation was the first organization to use the acronym STEM back in 2001, in order to describe an integrated learning model in which science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are inextricably linked in career preparation for certain industries.  Back then, smart folks put an effective label on a good, purpose-driven teaching model, and the idea found a foothold and developed into an influential behemoth.  Now you can find everything from STEM schools to STEM backpacks, STEM camps to STEM lunchboxes - if enveloping oneself in concepts could create STEM graduates, we’ve got the capability.

Trendy applications aside, our resulting supply is far from meeting demand.  The 2019 STEM by the Numbers Report outlines that there will be a credential gap of nearly 60,000 in Washington State and the trend extends throughout the country.  If the planning, decisions, and implementation we put forth in STEM’s infancy were enough, how can we explain our failure to grow our needed workforce?

Almost two decades after the coining, as we are entering a year with all the cultural mystique of a future-sounding time in a pocket novel, STEM continues to develop and shift, its practitioners ever in search of a better, more inclusive iteration.  The STEM-driven advancements of the last nineteen years are mind-bloggling even to those living within those industries; therefore, the idea that educators should be running STEM classrooms the same way they did back then is just as incomprehensible.

At the outset, I must say that I get it -  “it” being the slow-churning, often bureaucracy-laden, machine that is the bulk of public education, the mechanisms of which we must compel into forward movement to see even the smallest manifestations of change.  The thing is, if we call ourselves STEM educators who teach in STEM schools that serve STEM career goals, we have no option but to alter our work to meet the needs of students.  

Where to start?  I’ve assembled a short list of places to start your thinking and guide your energy as we usher in a new year:

Image by blmcalifornia

Women in STEM

In this 2015 article, Arooba Javed stresses the urgent need for media to accurately represent women in STEM as competent, admirable leaders in their fields.  Further, with an increase in exposure to the idea of female scientists, something in which media plays a large part, children are more likely to draw them as representatives. Yet when Katie Bouman was celebrated as a leader in a team that took the first image of a black hole, media trolls attempted to stymie her recognition, questioning her efforts and distracting from the fantastic achievement.  Much of this follow-up conversation took place over social media, a realm in which measurable negative effects on its use when compared to user’s academic achievement can be found.  We need to continue to pay attention to students’ consumption of media and the messages within, teaching students to be critical evaluators and to insist on truthful and inclusive representations of facts and storylines.

Fostering Family Sustaining Careers

Gone is the concept of a living wage, a construct focused on the individual; we now need to consider employment goals that respects households.  Why?  If we fill our STEM futures with jobs that are unattainable and/or unmaintainable for families, we haven’t made much of a difference at all.  Macroeconomic shifts are the forces creating jobs within STEM industries that require specific skills and education while limiting or eliminating other jobs with fewer requirements.  STEM Education efforts must join the movement, making post-secondary college and career training an accessible step for all.  More importantly, conversations with young people beginning their STEM education and adults retooling need to include job market outlooks and the awareness that a family sustaining career is an appropriate expectation.

Digital Collaboration

Despite dramatic statements to the contrary, many posit that 2020 is still too early to don black and read a eulogy for email, a digital communication tool we often love to hate.  However, classrooms, schools, and districts that fail to honor, embrace, and teach collaboration-based digital tools such as Slack, WhatsApp, and Manychat, are shortchanging students from experiencing valuable tools they will use in STEM careers.  While digital safety regulations are appropriate and necessary to monitor student and staff use, a bridge is needed to enable use of these tools in and across education systems.  STEM-strong learning benefits from collaborative, technology-responsive work and in a global economy, responsive communication strategies support a modern learning environment. 

Better, Together

Finland, the cardinal north for many an education reform, has the right idea.  Despite a fairly common understanding of the interconnected nature of STEM, a casual perusal of high school course catalogs across our country tells a different story.  What would STEM learning look like if we actually matched our philosophy to secondary education structures?  When student learning experiences are moved toward the interdisciplinary, we more closely mirror the experiences students will meet in their future careers.  Further, we musn’t stop at STEM; most jobs will require the Four Cs, and many will require multi-industry abilities.  In support of this, expectations for teachers must expand to value those with interdisciplinary certification abilities as well as STEM instructional coaches to support the work.  Why cling to structures of the past when they fail to match current, let alone future, needs?

Internships from Afar

Students living in metropolitan areas are likely seeing an uptick in access to pre-career STEM experience offerings in high school.  Businesses and organizations are stepping up, opening their doors, and welcoming involvement in growing their future workforce through connections with local youth.  Some are taking the work a step further and partnering with educational institutions to bring teachers along, knowing that their strongest conduits to student career choice-making could be the facilitators of their daily learning experiences.  Yet many young people are left out of these experiences; distance and lack of reasonable transportation are significant barriers to STEM learning.  To combat this, programs must look for opportunities to extend learning experiences to eager learners in order to reach every future STEM professional we can.  Beyond video chats, the application of computer science in working together without being together could drastically change college and career preparation.  Many doubted online learning as a viable means of education in its infancy yet this model has the potential to expand and amplify learning, strategically enabling students to work from anywhere, with anyone.

Image by Washington STEM

Career Connected Learning (CCL)

The Career Connect Washington Task Force recommended four actions toward CCL in our state:

  • Ensuring education is the pathway to career success
  • Ensuring school staff members obtain the training they need to support CCL
  • Expand apprenticeship models
  • Create a strategic plan that includes information from successful programs

These recommendations came to life as a response to the growing need for stronger career preparation programs to enable Washington graduates to fill Washington jobs.  Experts identified that work experience and/or exposure to the working supports students in making and following through on their career choices.  Washington STEM created a framework for CCL to share among and across educational providers, businesses, and other critical partners in achieving common goals.  In 2020, pay close attention to these agencies as they lead the way.

Image by Author

Apples to Airplanes

The most important note for STEM in 2020?  In my opinion, we will make the greatest headway in closing opportunity and investment gaps for students if we increase community awareness of the depth and breadth of STEM careers.  If we nurture STEM everywhere we can, building a connective network that builds meaning for young people, more youth are more likely to identify a career path that speaks to their inner drive for purpose.  Here are just a few examples of the interwoven presence of STEM:

  • One example of this application lies within the time-consuming - and expensive - work of reconstructing the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris after it was ravaged by fires in April of 2019.  As the government decided how to conduct restoration, many companies vied for unique and STEM-forward means to reconstruct, and in many cases, reimagine the building
  • Back home, Washington State University developed the Cosmic Crisp, an apple that represents the culmination of STEM collaboration at its finest.   We often talk about STEM with the lense of disparate subjects, despite understanding the interdisciplinary nature. 
  • Surveyors, just one of many underfilled career fields, are assisting in the addition of a massive, enclosed pedestrian bridge to the new terminal at Seattle-Tacoma Airport to ensure safety in construction.

Stepping into the future will involve connecting students to the STEM in every career, not those we’ve thus far broadcasted in the 21st Century.

That’s the thing about STEM Education; we can never rest, which rather than a point of stress, should serve as a constant stream of energy to fuel our journey.

What are your STEM plans in 2020?

  • College and Career Readiness
  • College and Career Talk
  • Science
  • STEM
  • Technology
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Erin Lark Board

Secondary Science Teacher at Vancouver Public Schools

Erin is an NBCT teaching secondary science in Vancouver, WA. Currently at iTech Preparatory, her work centers on interdisciplinary PBL and mindfulness.Her dissertation focused on youth innovation skills and interests in STEM content and careers, and she continues to advocate for young innovators on the daily as a co-founder of WayfinderWA.