Matt Larson: Math Education Is STEM Education!

As policymakers, districts, and schools attempt to define STEM, it is important not to dilute the “M” or take away resources and efforts to continuously improve and change mathematics education for students.  NCTM president Matt Larson wrote is his President’s Message, STEM Education Is Math Education!  From his May 17, 2017 message:

…There is no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes STEM education. This complicates matters and allows each entity to define STEM education in its own way to fit its experiences, biases, and agendas—NCTM included. In some cases this leads to math or science classrooms where students build bridges or program robots, but fail to acquire a deep understanding of grade level (or beyond) math or science learning standards.  

Could K–12 math classrooms fail to have students engaged and learning the mathematics content and practices necessary to advance in the curriculum, but have integrated some technology, engineering, coding activities, or connections to science and be called a “STEM Program”? If students are not equipped to pursue a post-secondary STEM major and career, is it really an effective K–12 STEM program? My answer is no. No number of fun activities or shiny technology will overcome this fatal shortcoming. 

STEM programming and opportunities for students to engage in engineering design challenges, using design thinking and productive uses of technology, certainly appeal to the Standards for Mathematical Practice & Colorado 21st Century Skills and Readiness Competencies in Mathematics, but math lessons should offer the same opportunities on a daily basis.  It’s all about defined learning goals, intentionality in planning for instruction, and a desire to think beyond the textbook.  Take LEGOs for example – students can use LEGOs in a very imaginative and innovative way to design, prototype, and problem solve (based on the open-ended task they are given); however, LEGOs can also be used to promote following directions and using prescriptive steps to achieve a predetermined result (did we all make the exact same spaceship?).  Which one sounds like a STEM opportunity, and which one sounds like the typical math class?  Unfortunately, most will answer this question the same way.

In St. Vrain, our team of STEM Coordinators crafted the STEM by Design document, which focuses on actions and attributes of a STEM program based on beliefs and vision.  Most notably, this document is grounded on the notions of integration in core content areas, direct connections to standards, and focus on Tier 1 instruction.  This work was funded through a four-year Race to the Top district grant, and like any good design challenge, it is a prototype that will keep evolving and improving.

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