Summer of Science
Future of education has a STEM glow
July 22 2010

by tmartin on July 22, 2010

IN JULY, enquiring minds turn to … science?

I was out and about the other week at a kick-off event at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay for something that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the southeastern Massachusetts region’s post secondary schools are calling “Summer of Science”

It’s a campaign to highlight the summertime science, technology, education, and math (STEM) programs for middle and high school students. That means both various short-term programs as well as day camps about topics like environment, marine studies, robotics, and … geography.

I have to admit, I never really put geography in the STEM category until I was totally drawn into a huge 22 foot tall globe.

Year read that right – it was a crane-your-neck-to-see-it-all sphere, right there in full display at the kick-off. Turns out said globe is part of Bridgewater State College’s mobile geography courses.

This globe was like a mondo beach ball that towers over your head, a sort of inflatable earth that you walk around or and walk inside of … which presents the relationships between parts of the globe in a very tangible way. And quickly reminds you that geography is STEM study afterall.

In the two years that EarthView (http://www.bridgew.edu/earthview) — that’s the giant beach ball globe’s name — has been rolling around the region, it and its handlers have taught some memorable geography lessons to more than 15,000 K-12 students.

Now your or I might remember geography as something that nestles beside the smell of chalk boards and the squeaking sound of pull down maps in memory, but Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan, says to banish that thought.

Hayes-Bohanan is one of the globe handlers and a Professor of Geography as Bridgewater State – and an something of evangelist for the the study of the discipline.

Geography, he says, is a study that helps people see the interconnections that one place has with every other place. As technology links us all tighter an tighter together, it become a highly relevant lens for seeing an shaping the world.

Ah-ha – a lens for seeing and shaping the world!

Various dignitaries at the event, including MA Secretary of Education Paul Revielle, talked a great deal of the need for STEM to support our state’s competitive position – but I believe the role of STEM is much more profound than that.

As frequent readers know, I believe that STEM matters – and not just for the literal content it delivers.

STEM skills, including geography, are a great way of training us in the key 21st century skills of creative thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication.

They show us how to imagine, how to try/fail/try again, and how the points of interconnection wave around us all.

They give us training we need to be natives in the post-industrial world, in a world gone digital, a world gone global, a world that is shifting constantly.
Back-to-back with my little Summer of Science outing, I happened to read a think-piece by Chris Dede. He’s the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and one of the US Department of Education’s 15-person technical working group that helped develop the draft of the 2010 National Educational Technology Plan.

“If we were to redesign education not to make historic models of industrial-era schooling more efficient, but instead to prepare students for the 21st century – simultaneously transforming teaching in light of our current knowledge about the mind – what types of learning environments might sophisticated information and communication technologies enable us to create?” he asks.

To me, a commitment to STEM and a plan to rethink how we think about school go hand-in-hand. They represent two sides of the same question: how do we prepare our kids for the world they’ll control?

Our industrial schooling – the rows of desks, the emphasis on memorized standards, the focus on rote and repetition, on the naked 3Rs, on the drive for scores and ranks … these all mirror the factories that dominated the last century.

The world that a US 7th grader in 1928 or 1951 or 1965 would control was a world where a a lifelong job/social contract in the widget factory was the key to security, where scientific manufacturing was the key to America’s greatness.

It was a world where Geography meant naming capitals of great powers and labeling the globe in neat categories.

It was also a world that had been to absorbing immigrants into the American fabric at a fast pace, immigrants whose children quickly needed to share a standard set of American knowledge and industrial structure to fit into the American dream.

Of course, we all know that world no longer exists … but the education system to feed it still does.

“The many affordances of modern technology can now support both a broader suite of roles involving “teaching” and a range of educational delivery systems beyond the walls of the school,” writes Dede.

In other words – neat rows and reciting the multiplication tables are not enough.

“As discussed by the “teaching” subset of the working group, schools as custodial institutions are a starting point for considering the work of teaching, but a “distributed” model of human and technical infrastructure encompasses a wider context of formal learning outside of classrooms …” he continues

And schools are no longer the center of the universe!

The process of teaching for a world of digitally-connected global citizens means more than memorizing facts fed to you by the teacher of authority.

Instead, the process for the world we live in now needs to incorporate the tools that surround us, using them in ways that are bit like social networking or distributed computer networks.

It means thinking about the tools of teaching the way you would think about the world through a STEM lens: creative, collaborative, distributed, with threads of communication linking it together.

Hmm, when you look at it that way, I’m thinking the Summer of Science is looking like a pretty good way to spend July.


Check out the US Dept of Education’s National Education Technology Plan at http://www.ed.gov/technology/netp-2010

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