An exciting week here, as the findings from our 3-month study for the Carnegie Science Center on STEM education were unveiled.
I’d like to share my insider’s perspective—a “researcher in the room” view, so to speak—about the experience of talking with parents and their children, educators and business leaders for the study.
First, you may ask, what is STEM education? STEM refers to rigorous instruction in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math through hands-on learning and activities in which students collaborate and learn how to solve problems.
The goal of our study was to gauge awareness and perceptions of STEM. One of the methods we used was a series of “family dialogues” in-home dinners with parents and their kids—to discuss education and careers and the role that STEM plays. In over 20 years as a researcher, I’ve never sat around a dinner table with a family and witnessed first-hand parents and their school-age children having a conversation about such an important issue; the experience bordered on an epiphany.
What struck me immediately was the tendency for parents to state unequivocally that they regularly talk to their kids about their future, including specific careers, and yet all of the children we met had little or no recall of any such conversations. It’s as if parents and their children talk past one another, or parents are reluctant to address issues directly, opting instead for ambiguous language as part of a discovery process. Or, it could be that parents believe they should broach such subjects and convince themselves that they have. Getting kids to think about careers at an early age is tough. In the words of one second grader, “I’m only 7! How am I supposed to know what I'm going to do with my life?”
As interesting: how parents and their kids assign responsibilities for keeping the family up to speed on developments at school (such as the availability of STEM programs). Parents rely on their children to bring home information about parent-teacher meetings, schedules, activities and to relate day-to-day class experiences. But the kids say it’s the school’s responsibility, specifically that of the teachers to keep parents up-to-date; it’s not a responsibility kids embrace. As a 7th grade girl told us, “It’s hard enough getting up to go to school. We forget about it as soon as we’re out the door.”
Perhaps the most telling thing we learned from these family discussions was that it matters a great deal how the courses kids take are described, and the current language around STEM is not resonating. This insight is really important in thinking about how to promote math and science among students. A lot of kids shy away from words like “rigorous” and “advanced,” and parents likewise show trepidation at the mere mention of calculus and physics. This is both sad and ironic, because STEM education is based on an engaging approach that is hands-on, collaborative, problem-solving and project-based—all things we know kids enjoy. We have to do a better job of presenting them with a value proposition to take STEM-related courses that better prepare them to be collaborative problem-solvers as well as educated adults.
I was struck by a fourth grader who showed us a bridge he built that could withstand “tons of weight.” When I asked how he built it so well, he told me he failed at first, but then went back and learned how to make it stronger by measuring density and strength using equations. These were the very equations he wouldn’t touch or didn’t want to learn before. I realized right there that herein lays the promise of STEM education.