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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sitting in a restaurant on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, my senses were gratified. I was taking in jazz and eating a meal after speaking at the National Science Teachers Association's (NSTA) STEM Forum. Midway through my feast, I glanced over to the menu, and was struck by an idea. STEM is jambalaya -- it is a melding of ingredients.

Now, for those of you who don't know what jambalaya is, imagine a combination of chicken, sausage, rice, shrimp, celery, and spices all mixed together. Separately, these items are just a grocery list, but combined they are a slice of heaven. And, while the ingredients are not inseparable, like a smoothie or tomato soup, each part builds on the next to create something new.

Jambalaya is a symbiosis, a synthesis, a fusion. The same goes for STEM.

What's in an Acronym?

Now, I'll be the first to admit how silly a comparison between food and an academic field sounds. But I have become more and more concerned with the STEM label, and how it is conditioning us to keep old habits. STEM is an unfortunate acronym, because we look for the S, the T, the E, and the M when we develop curriculum. That is, we look for where the science is, where the technology part goes, how engineering is present, and how can we add the math part. STEM is not S.T.E.M, where the letters are separated. STEM is a new word, a merger. We should have called STEM something completely different, just to force us away from this thinking of separate fields. STEM is a combination. It is all parts savored together, just like jambalaya.

And STEM brings us closer to the way society works. We created these separate fields because they are easier for us to understand the world when we put its parts into boxes. But nature doesn’t work that way. Take a tree, for instance. A scientist will categorize it as something to study through the lens of biology, botany, forestry, ecology, and many others. But Mother Nature just calls it "tree." It is all those things combined. That is the new mindset we need.

John Dewey wrote about simplification by isolation. It is something that we came up with to understand the world better. "We do not have a series of stratified earths, one of which is mathematical, another physical, another historical, and so on," said Dewey. He said this about education in general, but it applies to STEM, too. These separate fields make it easier for our human minds to understand things, but the world is a mixture of all these things at once, and should be presented and taught that way to children.

Blending the Ingredients

When I was speaking to teachers in New Orleans, one idea that I emphasized was how STEM is a meta-discipline. But after my talk, I realized that my words might have resonated more with this comparison to food. Think of it this way: when one eats jambalaya, does anyone separate the sausage from the rice or shrimp? Heck no! All the pieces are in there working beautifully together. That is where we need to get to when we're teaching STEM. We are always looking at curriculum and trying to map it to the old way of thinking about "where is the S or the T?" Good STEM has all of that working together seamlessly, just like a good meal.

Soon, we’ll have to lose the old way of thinking about STEM, because the future will demand it. Take, for example, the field of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the world of the small and strange. Small particles, which are 1/100,000 the thickness of your hair and act strangely, will be used to keep your pants from staining, make better sunscreens, make computers faster, and even cure cancer. So what discipline does nanotechnology fall under? The S, the T, the E, or the M? It falls under all of them! All those old disciplines, like biology, physics, electrical engineering, materials science, and chemistry, are coupled in a way that lets you move from one to the other without even knowing it. Nanotechnology is STEM jambalaya.

So we must be vigilant about not thinking of things in these separate fields, and start thinking of STEM as jambalaya, as a combination. Perhaps being near the French Quarter and listening to jazz and eating great food put me in a different mindset that let me see this. It seems that the arts (both culinary and musical) inspired my new thinking about STEM. And the A for the arts is the last missing piece to this jambalaya. There is still work needed to figure out how to do that best. The first step is to realize that STEM is jambalaya, and when we add the A to make it really STEAM, this blend of old-school subjects will be the best dish yet.

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Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Secondary Education student in Chicago

I like this idea. It's a bit like what schools have done with "social studies" for many years: you can weave together history, geography, anthropology, sociology, and/or cultural studies into one set of learning experiences. The trick is to have a compelling topic that can be explored through multiple disciplines. And of course, it would also be possible to connect STEM or other physical sciences with the social sciences and the arts: students could study the physics and culture of skateboarding as an activity, the engineering and aesthetics of skateboards as objects, the rhetoric of arguing for or against the use of public funds to build skate parks, and so on.

Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger 2014

I agree that putting STEM in context is important. I think skateboarding is a good start, but there might be other topics that are more inclusive to students of backgrounds that might not have experience with skateboarding or be fans of it. I think popular sports might be the answer. After writing a football book, I learned it was extremely popular and a good playground to discuss science in context. I still struggle to find a topic that girls will embrace with the same zeal.

Judd R. Pittman's picture
Judd R. Pittman
7th and 8th grade science teacher in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Great analogy, this is something all educators need to consider. If we open our minds to the eventual synergy of all the isolated learning that takes place in the different disciplines it will only make us better educators and our students will understand the importance of all the possibilities provided by education.

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Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Secondary Education student in Chicago

Thanks for replying! I chose skateboarding more or less at random -- I don't really know anything about it, and you're right that it would not appeal to all students. I was just wanting to illustrate some of the ways almost any topic could be studied both as a STEM project and as a social/cultural project. City transportation systems, waterways, recycling and waste management, parks and playgrounds, animal shelters, public monuments or art, cooking... As Dewey envisioned, children can be engaged in doing the kinds of work adults in their community do, at their own level of interest and ability. Your reply is a good reminder to ask the students themselves what interests them!

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Bon Crowder's picture
Bon Crowder
Math Mom & Education Advocate

I see this, surely. But I'm concerned then that folks will think that math goes with STE, only. Even as the separate elements, they still think this.

If we will merge the STEM bits in a jambalaya, or gumbo as I prefer, then the M needs to be clearly merged with all other subjects. There's a reason we have the 3Rs of Reading wRiting and aRithmetic. Those are the ones you CAN'T do other stuff without.

It saddens me (and terrifies me) that society is inclined to think that math goes with STE and nothing else.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Secondary Education student in Chicago

Thanks for replying! I chose skateboarding more or less at random -- I don't really know anything about it, and you're right that it would not appeal to all students. I was just wanting to illustrate some of the ways almost any topic could be studied both as a STEM project and as a social/cultural project. City transportation systems, waterways, recycling and waste management, parks and playgrounds, animal shelters, public monuments or art, cooking... As Dewey envisioned, children can be engaged in doing the kinds of work adults in their community do, at their own level of interest and ability. Your reply is a good reminder to ask the students themselves what interests them!

(1)
Judd R. Pittman's picture
Judd R. Pittman
7th and 8th grade science teacher in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Great analogy, this is something all educators need to consider. If we open our minds to the eventual synergy of all the isolated learning that takes place in the different disciplines it will only make us better educators and our students will understand the importance of all the possibilities provided by education.

(1)

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