What Happened to the 'M' in STEM?


January 3, 2019

At the December meeting of the Hollidaysburg Area School Board, on which I serve, I voted against a proposal for eight new high school-level science and technology elective course offerings in our district.

Why would I do that? After all, we live in the new “STEM” world where encouraging our kids to enter these important fields in science, technology, engineering and math, is a high educational and societal priority, right? Allow me to explain.

Common Core standards have been the bane of parents’ and students’ existence for the past several years. Recent NAEP (The “Nation’s Report Card”) scores have shown a decline in student achievement for the first time, several years after Common Core implementation.

Most school board members will claim there’s nothing they can do about Common Core in their local schools, because these standards are driven by state and federal mandates. That is partially true, but some things that can be done to improve the quality of our kids’ education while putting up with Common Core, at least until we can replace it.

The ‘M’

Which brings us back to “M” in STEM, which of course stands for math. To prepare students for STEM fields, one of the most important obligations of K-12 school districts is to ensure these students are prepared for the math coursework that will be required when they enter college.

But we aren’t doing that very well.

Too many of our students are forced to take remedial math in their freshman year of college, because they didn’t satisfactorily complete high-school level college-prep math.

We don’t know the extent of the problem because the state Department of Education claims it isn’t allowed to share those numbers with the board. But data shows the extent of the problem nationwide, and anecdotal evidence from my district suggests even engineering majors – a category of students we assume have done well in math – have been placed in remedial courses.

Nevertheless, the district proposed a slate of new electives that require a strong foundation in math:

• Sea, Air, and Land Engineering Applications

• STEM Robotics II

• STEM Robotics III

• Environmental Science

• Earth Science

• Meteorology

• AP Environmental Science

• Oceanography

Each “new course proposal,” which we were notified of five days before the board meeting, includes a “prerequisites” section and for some reason, a separate “requirements of students” section.

But I noticed that the requirements of a minimal amount of math proficiency or successful math course completions were non-existent for any of the courses.

Where is the ‘M’?

How can we be serious about pushing STEM without the M? (One course said the student should have a “knowledge” of algebra, but this wasn’t defined.

I asked the curriculum director if the purpose of the new courses was to encourage our students to enter STEM fields. She confirmed that was the purpose.

I then asked, how are we serving our students in “preparing” them for STEM fields if there is no expectation that they have a certain proficiency in math first, before being eligible for electives? (These new courses would be offered in grades 10-12.)

To my suggestion that enrollment in the new courses should be contingent on demonstrated competency in foundational math, another administrator responded that we just wanted to “expose” them to these additional fields to “see if they liked them.”

This seemed to contradict what I was initially told, that we want to “prepare” them for STEM fields. There is quite a big difference between “preparing” students and “exposing” them.

No teachers were present to defend the course proposals or elaborate further.

No other board members commented on the proposals or asked questions before the vote to approve them was taken.

Harm is two-fold

You may ask, what’s the harm of offering these additional courses? Students who excel in math and science may benefit, and it may encourage them to enter STEM fields.

The harm is twofold. First, the math-less STEM electives distract from what should be the primary focus of K-12 education: providing the basic foundation for entering life post-high school.

Students who wish to enter STEM fields must be prepared for four-year college-level courses when they graduate. The fact that many of them are taking remedial (that is, high school-level) courses at college tuition rates their freshman year is strong evidence that we, K-12 institutions, are not fulfilling our basic function in the educational system.

Second, we are misleading our students by implying that anyone can be successful in STEM careers requiring high-level skills, without the requisite work in supporting disciplines such as math, physics, and statistics. That is not true.

An aspiring engineer or scientist does need a certain level of competence and ability in math to turn that dream into reality.

K-12 schools must not get distracted by the shiny objects being offered up as STEM course work and enrichment. Math is still the foundation, and we are failing at our job of achieving real competency goals.

Editor’s Note

Lois Kaneshiki has been a school board director in the Hollidaysburg Area School District since 2016. She can be reached at [email protected]

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Herald owners, employees or advertisers.

The Herald publishes a variety of opinions in the interests of serving the community. The majority opinion is not the only valid opinion.

William J. Brennan, Jr., associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States said in 1964, “Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”


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