Friday, May 10, 2013

The STEM Mindset

By Sean Scarpiello

Recently in the American Education system, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding STEM. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. But why are the fields of STEM important and how can these areas be taught effectively in schools? Most students shy away from these areas of study because they are difficult or boring; however, with proper instruction, students can achieve success in these fields while having fun.

First, the fields of STEM are important because they teach students how to think. Classes in English, political science, and business only teach the rules of these fields. However, STEM teaches the rules of each field and more importantly how to apply them. This is important because after formal education, student need to apply everything that they have learned during their past years of education. In many fields, the application of education starts at the first job. For students of STEM subjects, these applications have been going on for years in school. Actively applying the knowledge learned in class to real problems cultivates a special mindset which allows STEM students to succeed in any field, even outside of the fields surrounding science. In fact, physics and mathematics majors have the highest average scores on the LSAT which is taken by students hoping to become lawyers. So while these students are not actively learning about politics and the law in class, they instead learn how to think and apply concepts, and they gain an edge on all students.

With this in mind, many think that it is difficult for students to be actively engaged in class by applying concepts they are learning. In reality, it is not that difficult. Teachers can instill this scientific mindset into students by simply rewording questions on tests. For example, in a biology class, teachers do not ask the question “What is the function of a certain protein?” Teachers know that such a question is easy because students can simply regurgitate the answer from their notes. However, teachers get students to apply knowledge by rewording the same question as “What would be the effects on the cell or body if a certain protein were to fail or lose its function?” Here, these same general question is being asked, but student must first process this question and begin to build an answer that goes beyond repeating whatever is written down in their notebook. In reality, these types of questions can be written in all different subjects in schools. For example, in an English class, students should not be asked to locate an incorrectly used comma in a sentence, but to rather write their own sentences demonstrating how to correctly and incorrectly use a comma.

One other way to instill the scientific mindset into students is by questioning students in ways which interest them. This is extremely simple as schools have a portal to these resources sitting on their desktops. By using computers and the internet, teachers and student can learn about new and interesting things in a way that encourages students to continue questioning their world. One example from my experience was a physics professor who tried keeping students intellectually involved in work, while also involving their interests. To do this, my professor would ask test questions on interesting topics, even though we were learning basic principles. For example, on a physics test, instead of asking a question about a cannon shooting a ball at a certain velocity, he would ask us to calculate the G forces acting on a supersonic jet pilot or the gravity being applied to Darth Vader on a planet from Star Wars. Through this, students began thinking about physics outside of the classroom when they saw an airplane fly by or if they were watching an action movie. This idea becomes even easier when teachers and education professionals target these ideas at young students. If teachers can interest students in physics of jets or the biology of dinosaurs at a young age, students will remain in the STEM fields, despite the extra work which accompanies it. Plus, with computers at their fingertips, they will be able to log on and find even more interesting topics and question those areas too.

In all, while fields such as business, political science, English, and others are extremely important, many of them fail to provide students with effective ways to think. The fields of STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math, encourage students to apply their knowledge wherever they go. Plus, they are easy to teach in ways which utilize technology, acting as fantastic learning tools for everyone’s innately scientific mind.

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