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STEM Education-Proceed With Caution

STEM Education-Proceed With Caution

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Published by: Matt on Jun 06, 2011
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Key words
STEM, vocational, technological literacy, engineering
Proposals for science, technology, engineering andmathematics to be presented in the secondary curriculumin an integrated way have been developed in somecountries for at least three decades now, but are recentlybecoming more common and more significant. Someproposals are now being delivered with high level politicalclout, for example President Obama’s November 2009announcement of a range of STEM initiatives, and the UKappointment of a National STEM Director followed by arange of similar initiatives to promote the STEM agenda. Inother countries this grouping of subjects is promoted as acoalition but not necessarily as a school curriculumorganiser, for example SET (Science, Engineering andTechnology) in South Africa (National Science andTechnology Forum).The rationales for the agenda are various but limited, andrelated mainly to vocational and economic goals, rationalesnot uncommon in the justification of Technology Education,though more recently marginalised as TechnologyEducation has established its place more securely as acomponent of general education. In many countries,traditional technology education had a strong vocationalemphasis and consequently the link with workforce needsand the economy was quite explicit. Technology as acomponent of general education has a less direct link witheconomic development, but nevertheless it remains arationale which is often invoked.The rationales indicate the motivation for STEM proposals:shifts in workforce patterns and downward trends ineconomic indicators. It is not uncommon for curriculardevelopment in Technology Education to be promoted inperiods of economic downturn. Using Australia as anexample, there is a clear correlation between the economicdepressions of the 1890’s, 1930’s and 1980’s andsignificant developments in technology education(Williams, 1996). It is not implausible that the globalfinancial crisis of 2007-2009 is a stimulant to calls for theSTEM education agenda.The agenda for this amalgamation is being driven byvocational and economic goals. Vocational goals relate toskills shortages in science and engineering areas, “studyingSTEM creates a pathway to a brighter future, opening up awide range of interesting and exciting career opportunities”(Central Office of Information, 2008). STEM strategies aredesigned to develop a strong supply of scientists,engineers, technologists and mathematicians (Departmentfor Education and Skills, 2006), and the UK governmenthas serious concerns about how vacancies in theseemployment sectors are to be filled in the future (Barlex,2007). And in the USA, “a growing number of jobs requireSTEM skills and America needs a world class STEMworkforce to address the grand challenges of the 21stcentury, such as developing clean sources of energy thatreduce our dependence on foreign oil and discoveringcures for diseases” (The While House, 2009).The economic argument for emphasis on a STEMalignment follows this vocational rationale. The USargument goes that a focus on STEM will result in“reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’sengine of scientific discovery and technological innovationwhich is essential to meeting the challenges of thiscentury” (Obama, 2009). And similarly in the UK, “as theUK seeks to position itself against global competitors at atime of rapid economic change, the priority of increasing itscapacity for innovation and enterprise becomesincreasingly urgent” (STEM Programme, nd), a goal whichis seen can be achieved through the promotion andnational coordination of STEM activities.The political, social and technological history of eachcountry around the world is different, and so the resultingsystems of education, and specifically technologyeducation, are also different, and are aligned with thathistory. An examination of the beginning movements of atechnology education curriculum in India and China areclear examples of this (Natarajan & Chunawala, 2009;Ding, 2009) with each country taking quite differentapproaches to technology education, despite suchdevelopment taking place concurrently. The STEMphenomenon is not occurring in all countries because it isnot appropriate for all countries. The discussion in thispaper will focus on the UK and USA, where the STEMproposals are most common. These countries are alsosignificant because other countries tend to follow theirlead: the Commonwealth countries tend to follow the UKand some European and Asian countries tend to follow thetechnology education developments in the USA.
STEM Education: Proceed with caution
Assoc Prof P John Williams, Centre for Science and Technology Education Research,University of Waikato, New Zealand
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Design and Technology Education: An International Journal 16.1
The calls for action on the STEM agenda, as it translates toan integrated school curriculum, are broad and undefined.This should ring cautionary bells for technology educatorsfor a number of reasons, some of which are outlinedbelow.
Unchallengeable Curriculum
The rigidity and resilience of the school curriculumstructure should not be underestimated when proposingreform – the “unchallengeable high ground” referred to byGoodson (1992) in commenting on the effects (or lack of effect) of the significant curriculum reform of the 1960’s. Infact a comparison between the early days of institutionalised schooling and current school academicsreveals a remarkably resilient structure of recogniseddisciplines. Despite authoritative calls for reform from thelikes of Carl Rogers (1969), A. S. Neill (1960), Carl Bereiter(1974), Ivan Illich (1971) and Paulo Freire (1971), and theresearch and debate that accompanied these ideas, thestructure of the school curriculum remains largelyunchanged. And this is not for the want of opportunity.Take the current situation in Australia for example, where anational curriculum is being developed from a history of five independent state educational systems sinceFederation in 1901. This ideal opportunity for innovationand rejuvenation of an educational system is being utilisedto entrench a conservative and traditional system.Despite the hundreds of thousands of well educatedpeople who spend their lifetimes devising ways(pedagogy) and means (content) of capturing children’sinterest in the things that go on in school, childrensteadfastly and consistently are much more interested inwhat goes on outside school. Given the internationallycommon and enduring problem of student alienation, it issurprising that there are not many alternative approachesto formal education. Venville, Wallace, Rennie and Malone(2002) considered this issue and concluded that there aremany factors mitigating against changes in traditionalschool discipline curriculum structures, including“assessment, parental pressure for traditional standardsand subject-based qualifications, instructional periods,textbooks, curriculum guides and staff who are trained intheir disciplines and have developed long standingattachments to them” (p. 54).It would require a very radical curriculum approach to takeout all the time in the school day that is occupied byscience, technology and mathematics, and put back asequence of learning activities that would represent anintegrated approach to achieving the essential skills andknowledge of these three subjects, plus engineering.Support for a STEM approach to curriculum design mustproceed with the understanding that school curriculumstructures are very resistant to change.
National programmes have been established in the UK,USA and South Africa to co-ordinate STEM activities. Bothin the USA and the UK (Department for Education andSkills, 2006) initial enquiries into existing STEM projectsrevealed a significant amount of government support, but acompletely unco-ordinated approach. So part of the majornational response has been the co-ordination of existingactivities. In the USA this has been compounded by anumber of high profile partnerships involving leadingcompanies, foundations, non profit organisations andscience and engineering societies to form part of the ‘Raceto the Top’ programme. Little clarity remains however onwhat a co-ordinated approach means in the schoolcurriculum.As Sanders (2009) reflected:I am sceptical when I hear STEM education used toimply something new and exciting in education. Uponcloser inspection, these practices usually appearsuspiciously like the status quo educational practices thathave monopolised the educational landscape for acentury. Pending evidence to the contrary, I think of STEM education as a reference to business as usual - theuniversal practice in American schools of disconnectedscience mathematics and technology education...acondition that many believe is no longer serving Americaas well as it should/might (p.21).Sanders’ scepticism is reinforced by an examination of theprojects that have been developed for teachers and areavailable online to support teachers wishing to implementSTEM activities into their school (for example:www.stemtransitions.org). The projects generally do notintegrate science, technology, engineering andmathematics but do bits and pieces of a couple of thesesubjects, and detail activities which primarily achieve thegoals of science or mathematics. In fact the sub-title for theSTEM Transitions is “Enhancing Mathematics and Sciencerigour through evidenced-based curriculum projects”.Pitt (2009) summarises the ambiguities in this approach:STEM as an educational concept is problematic. There islittle consensus as to what it is, how it can be taught inschools, whether it needs to be taught as a discretesubject or whether it should be an approach to teachingthe component subjects, what progression in STEMeducation is, and how STEM learning can be assessed(p.41).
STEM Education: Proceed with caution
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Design and Technology Education: An International Journal 16.1
Even if an integrated curriculum was possible, it isprobably quite unrealistic to expect such an approach tobe successful in the short term in secondary schoolsbecause of the staffing implications. Primary schoolteachers generally already teach all subjects to one classof students, so an integrative approach is not such aradical move at this level. Individual secondary teachers,however, would not be able to develop the expertiserequired in all the STEM subject areas to enable anindividual teacher to provide an integrated approach.Therefore a system of team teaching would be necessary,along with all the accompanying school organisation andtimetable implications. Teachers would need to be trainedfor this type of approach.When the subject of Engineering Studies was firstintroduced into the curriculum in Western Australia, theinitial briefing was attended by both science andtechnology teachers in about equal proportion. It waslogical that such a subject be team taught – thetechnology teachers had the material knowledge and thedesign and practical skills, and the science teachers hadthe understanding of the scientific principles. However atthe conclusion of the implementation phase, it wasobserved that no science teachers were involved with thesubject which was entirely taught by technology teachers.The difficulties of school resource allocation andtimetabling seemed insurmountable to enable this level of co-operation.One of the goals promoted by the STEM agenda is ‘STEMliteracy’. As a vague idea, this is laudable, but as aneducational outcome it is problematic. Scientific literacy,technological literacy (and technacy (Seemann & Talbot,1995)) and particularly numeracy are reasonably wellresearched and defined, but something that is anamalgam of the three has not been developed nor trialledand tested. Consequently, it is difficult to develop anacademic programme (STEM) when the goals are notdefined.One implied definition is provided by Sesame Street’sEarly STEM Literacy Initiative (Sesame Workshop, 2009)which has a major focus on mathematics in the earlyyears, and is formally part of a two year science initiativerelated to developing an understanding of the naturalworld. If this approach which prioritises mathematics andscience represents STEM literacy, then the goals of engineering and technology are ill considered.So at the moment there does not seem to be any clarityabout what STEM education might look like in schools interms of how the subjects could relate to each other, andthe early evidence, which should make technologyeducators very cautious, is that Technology will become atool to achieve the goals of Science and Mathematics.
Vocational and General Education
There is an explicit vocational approach in the STEMagenda, mainly related to science and engineering. Whilethe UK government paints a broad approach to vocationalgoals and refers to increasing the flow of qualified peopleinto the STEM workforce, its more specific concern is thelarge number of engineering graduates from India andPacific rim countries and the concurrent decliningnumbers of engineering graduates in the UK (Barlex,2007). Project Lead the Way (2005) represents anintegrated approach to STEM education and specifies onegoal as preparing students for university engineeringcourses. A number of Technology Education researchersalso see STEM education as providing a career pathway toan engineering profession (Dearing and Daugherty, 2004;Wicklein, 2006).In this context, the validity of such a strong vocational biasis debatable. Pitt (2009) questions this morality of “exposing all learners to STEM when only a few of themare going on to STEM based careers” (p 42). Millar et al(2006) brands this vocational goal of STEM educationunacceptable social engineering on a grand scale.STEM education is also being proposed as a componentof general education, by endeavouring to improve thelevel of STEM literacy in the population (Department forEducation and Skills, 2006) and increase STEM skillsoverall for everybody (Holdren, 2009). The incompatibilityof such dual attempts to satisfy both general andvocational approaches in the one course has beenindicated in the past (Williams, 1998): the goals of eachapproach are different, the assessment methods aredifferent and the fundamental teaching methodologies aredifferent.The process and the knowledge related to the areas of Technology and Engineering education are also different inthat Technology is more appropriately a component of general education, and Engineering studies, beingnarrower and relating to a specific profession, are morevocational. The implication in terms of the schoolcurriculum is that Technology is a component of primaryand lower secondary, and Engineering is part of the uppersecondary schooling.A compounding difficulty is the extremely flexible use of the terminology. From a recent conference I collected abrochure titled ‘Kindergarten Children as Engineers’
STEM Education: Proceed with caution
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Design and Technology Education: An International Journal 16.1

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