What the U.S. is doing right when it comes to STEM education
According to the National Science Board’s Elementary and Secondary STEM Education report, the U.S. is behind many global competitors, ranking 25th out of a list of 37 countries in mathematics literacy and seventh out of 37 countries in science. The U.S. is behind countries like Japan, South Korea, Estonia, and the Netherlands regarding average mathematics and science literacy scores. Reports like this paint a dismal picture of the “lackluster” state of U.S. STEM education.
We often define success in education as success in STEM courses at the expense of opportunities for students to explore a variety of subjects. But this is a mistake. When we expose students to many disciplines and a solid STEM education, it spurs creativity. While the U.S. is often criticized for falling behind in STEM, there are many aspects of STEM education that the U.S. is getting right.
Encouraging STEM education starting in K-12 is vital to the future of the U.S. and its workforce, but we can’t rely on standardized tests alone to determine progress. When we look at indicators like standardized testing alone, we miss a significant part of the picture. While many nations are hyper-focused on math and science performance and achievement in testing, the U.S. has had the foresight to encourage students to explore multiple areas and passions such as art, language, philosophy, music, and history.
A multidisciplinary education that enables students to explore various interests with less pressure to excel on tests, encourages students to develop a genuine interest and passion for math and science. Based on my international experience in education, below are three areas where I think the U.S. is getting it right to foster creativity and innovation in STEM.
Exposure to a variety of opportunities for creativity and learning
Focusing students on one academic area too early can rob them of opportunities to explore multiple passions and discover how those areas may be linked. The U.S. is on the right track regarding the variety of fields K-12 students are studying; from creative writing to classical studies, social sciences and the arts, these areas can teach skills that transfer to STEM fields and careers. Some of the most brilliant mathematicians I know are amazingly talented musicians.
Combining math and science education with learning about other topics allows students to understand how these concepts apply in real-world settings and gives students room to explore multiple interests. The U.S. strategy for STEM education calls explicitly for providing students opportunities to see where disciplines converge and how those disciplines can connect in the real world. This approach provides students with opportunities for more meaningful educational experiences in STEM.
Offering opportunities for fun, interactive, and play-based STEM activities
To truly love a subject and enjoy learning, students need a chance to explore that subject in low-stakes environments. The U.S. offers programs that combine play with learning in creative ways. Allowing students to engage in fun learning activities makes these subjects less intimidating. Students engaged in play by building with Legos, learning the art of Origami, or solving Sudoku and Crossword puzzles, develop their ability to identify important patterns, and exercise their problem-solving skills through their imagination and creativity.
When we blur the lines between “having fun” and learning, we encourage students to take an interest in STEM rather than feeling like it’s a necessary evil required to succeed in school. The U.S. has many examples of play-based learning in early childhood education and summer enrichment programs.
Collaborations between K-12 schools and employers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of STEM jobs in the U.S. is expected to grow by nearly 11 percent by 2030. Employers are recognizing the value of starting early with exposure to STEM. Many are partnering with schools to help spark students’ interests in STEM, introducing vertical farm walls, 3D printers, and other industry technology to bridge the concepts taught in their curriculum, to their tangible applications in the real-world. Creating environments and bringing in technology that mirrors what students may see in their future careers makes education more engaging. Programs that allow students to sample different fields help to inspire the next generation of STEM professionals.
When assessing the U.S. performance in STEM education, we can’t look at test scores alone. While it may look like the U.S. is lagging on paper, the U.S. is still among the leading global engines of entrepreneurship and creativity that keeps churning out new and amazing innovations.
The U.S. will continue to do so because of the opportunities students have for combining disciplines and fun, interactive, play-based learning. When we remove some of the pressure to perform on standardized tests and let kids be curious, multi-passionate learners, we foster their imaginations and allow for the growth of their creativity. It is this creativity that will spark the innovations and technology of the future.
Christina Perdikoulias is President of DigitalEd, a company that works with more than 300 colleges and universities worldwide to make STEM education better for students, faculty, and colleges and universities.
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