Friday, October 19, 2012

The Art of a Well-Rounded Education

Last week, I went to the local middle school to guest-teach a lesson on computer science to a group of 6th graders.  My particular brand of computational thinking education is very hands-on, relying on craft projects and games to illustrate key ideas. Imagine my surprise when the students flew through the lesson on algorithms, but got tripped up tying knots!

As the lesson came to an end, the teacher thanked me for coming and said in a hushed tone, "This was good for them. They need more practice using their hands.  Most of my students can't even cut out shapes with scissors these days."

Floored by that revelation, I decided to compare notes from other groups.  Sure enough, in short experiments, knot tying was a hurdle for kids grades K-8.  It's not just in my part of the world, either.  Back in March, a British survey claimed that school children are excelling in technology and lacking in common life skills.  Many believe that this is due to a decrease in time during the school day for subjects like art and music. This phenomenon has been studied and documented, defended and dismissed, but I continue to maintain that the rise of one specialty does not have to oust traditional talents.

My solution is simple and approachable.  Some call it Blended Learning, but really it's a common sense approach toward maintaining handicraft through education.  Just like I encourage my sons to "read the book" before they see a movie, I encourage students to experience concepts through real-life exercises before they play with technical simulations.  Tie knots.  Fold origami.  Play with Legos.  These things can teach you about anything from mathematics to programming to African savannas.  Best of all, it appeals to additional learning styles which aren't satisfied by purely audio or visual cues.

Amazing Paper Airplanes
This is not to say that the responsibility falls squarely on the schools.  The most promising approach is really to integrate these types of projects into fun activities at home and outside of school hours.  Encourage your children (or your friend's children) to make paper airplanes!  Use them to learn about aerodynamics.  That's fun at any age.

If you think that coming up with hands-on activities for your geography lesson, astronomy class, or book club is too difficult, hop on over to Pinterest.  Excellent teachers are pinning examples of hands-on curriculum all the time.  Don't see anything specific to your particular subject?  Send a tweet to me at @kiki_lee and I will personally help you find well-rounded activities for your kiddos.

As published in the Huffington Post on 10/19/2012

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What is STEM, Anyway?

Professionals who spend any time in academics or grant-writing may have noticed that 2012 has become the year of STEM.  More precisely, it has become the year of talking about STEM.  That buzzword has been flying around so aggressively that it is now common to the vocabulary of educators from kindergarten through graduate school.  With such excitement surrounding that acronym, it has begun to leak out into every day society, and people all over America are starting to ask, "What the heck is STEM, anyway?"

Technically speaking, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering & Math.  That definition doesn't even begin to do it justice.  Those of us who live STEM, have realized that the vision conjured up by those words are nowhere near indicative of the excitement those subjects invoke.  Unofficially, STEM is the declaration that we, as a population, need to bring creativity, passion and art to our academics. The STEM movement is a progression toward blended learning and teaching students how to integrate the scientific method into their everyday lives.  It's the passionate manifesto that computational thinking needs to begin right along side shapes and phonics. STEM is the realization that math is embedded into the beauty of a daisy and the functionality of the placement of its leaves. 

Even as the President's Council highlights the "need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade", congress is prepared to cut funding for science and technology in schools.  This is extremely surprising, considering that 93% of parents believe that STEM education should be a priority in the United States.  

With 51% of parents believing that our schools are failing to make STEM education a priority, a handful of organizations have taken it upon themselves to pick up the slack.  National entities like Change the Equation are developing resources to entice students and educators to look further into the amazing opportunities that STEM provides.  Individuals like Vi Hart are using YouTube to illustrate just how romantically hysterical the mathematical universe can be.  Role Model networks like FabFems are providing support for women and non-traditional individuals who are often dissuaded from the STEM disciplines when they are left wanting for professional exemplars. Local organizations like Thinkersmith, are taking programs directly to their neighborhood schools, to alleviate the cost and subject-fear which typically snip STEM lessons from the classroom.

Now that you know what STEM means, I invite you to learn more about the many exciting and inspiring methods that can be used to pique interest in these careers again. Help us banish the negative connotations surrounding these subjects. The fight is far from over, but the fact that you know what STEM means is a positive indicator that we are taking steps in the right direction.  

Find a STEM Organization in your area by searching the NGCP Program Directory.

First published on 10/5/12 in Huffington Post.