What should we be teaching in the STEM classroom?

My friend Seth Hawkins, who teaches in a high school, recently posted a link to an SMBC comic about the typical, frustrating method a student takes to completing a homework problem in math. This humorous link led to a more serious discussion about what we should be teaching our students.

Hawkins: So, to take something that started as light hearted and fun and go a bit deeper with it, how could education have prepared you better? We teach students the the facts in science way more than the process. Should they learn how to do research alongside the facts? After? Before? Is it a good thing for people to spend 8 hours on a math problem or is that turning people off science? Is that teaching any useful skills?

Brent W. Barker: Facts are really just one small piece of the puzzle. Knowing how they relate to each other, and being able to solve complex problems by making reasonable estimates and deciding how to investigate the problem, is so much more important for life in general, and for science in particular. Engaging students in their curiosity about the world, and springboarding from that curiosity to help them gain the confidence to investigate the real world and make conclusions that are well-reasoned and defensible — *that* is what would be really helpful. So yes, do research-like activities early. Help students enjoy failure as a learning opportunity, give quick feedback.

Spending 8 hours on one math problem is probably not helpful. Being stuck, without hope of where to go next, is not helpful, and only increases anxiety, probably to the point of intellectual paralysis. Teaching students how to work with being stuck and how to help themselves be unstuck — this will help in science, but also in every part of their lives.

Hawkins: Obviously students need to know “the facts” in order to have something to manipulate. Although, that does remind me of a project that students do at the school I work at. They create dragons and use their imaginary traits in a project on genetics. In that case the facts about the animals are not as important as understanding how genetics work and being able to play with that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the different skills that I think we should be teaching but are often secondary if they are anywhere on the map. I saw a TED talk that said that grit is the quality that best predicts future success. I think we should add curiosity and the ability to make a well-supported argument to that list as well as the ability to get yourself “unstuck.”

I’m trying to think how to incorporate that into the education process. I think that having the answers at the end of the book and grading things like homework and worksheets on the right answer don’t build the above mentioned skills.

BWB: I think another word for “grit” that might encapsulate “getting unstuck” is “resiliency”. Just like small children need to be able to get hurt and learn that they can heal and be okay, even though pain, we need to be able to do this intellectually.

Unfortunately, we focus so much on the “right answer” that we lose focus on *how* we get to the right answer, since that is ultimately more valuable.


So, denizens of the blogosphere, what should we be focusing on teaching to our students in science classes, both for those who want to be scientists and others?

I’ll end with a quote from Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.

Fail better.