The Missed Opportunity in STEM Education

Most adults seem to have an instinctive aversion to mathematics. Yes I know the excuses: Bad genes, no natural aptitude, it's boring. But when federal agencies suppress their mathematical competencies in order to support STEM education you have to start worrying!
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Most adults seem to have an instinctive aversion to mathematics. Yes I know the excuses: Bad genes, no natural aptitude, it's boring; I had a bad teacher in grade school. But when federal agencies suppress their mathematical competencies in order to support STEM education you have to start worrying!

The latest educational fad term is "STEM," which stands for a curriculum in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. GOOGLE reports over 174 million pages on "STEM education" alone. The problem is that adults, including some educators, still haven't figured out how to make peace with the "mathematics" in STEM. Everyone applauds classes in high-tech robotics as the sine qua non of a good STEM program, but ask them to explain how they integrate any mathematics content into the robotic curriculum and you may be surprised that most of these programs do not even work with mathematics teachers to legitimize themselves.

Mathematics has a sociological bad rap at exactly the same time when so many careers demand, and abundantly reward, individuals who are not mathematics-averse. The negative social stereotype of "having fun with math" carries over into the world of marketing as well. The very last thing you want to do is say that "some math is involved."

It is a fact that the so-called "business model" has won in the western world, and all creative activities from art to science have to adhere to some kind of business plan if they want to continue to prosper, whether it is in how you write a research proposal to "sell" it, or decide how to engage your audience who are now called your "customer." This also means that you have a "brand" that you have to protect.

Although you will not find NASA on the stock market, it has adopted many of the ideas from the business world, even though it cannot make any profits from its activities. The business model has recently not served NASA very well. In 2013, the Office of Management and Budget classified nearly all of NASA's education programs as redundant to those in other agencies. What had happened is that NASA had buried its unique expertise in science and engineering under the rubric of programs whose names were nearly identical to those found at other agencies. NASA's absolutely unique scientific data and engineering expertise as education resources were thoroughly camouflaged under generic-sounding program names in its so-called "lines of business."

What the NASA business model has to do with mathematics can be deduced from how NASA sees itself as an inspiring resource for students. The NASA brand has become synonymous with inspiring students, making them feel excited about what they know, and enticing them to learn more about STEM careers. The problem is that in our society, mathematics tends not to make people feel they are competent; it does not excite our emotions in a positive way, and often engenders a sense of dread. Any marketing expert will tell you that mathematics is the poison-pill for any brand, and so over the years NASA and other agencies have largely hidden their mathematics expertise from public view. If you want a brand that students like, you must make sure that it accentuates the positive. This is why so many agencies look at robotics as one of the magical themes that will make them STEM-enabled. There are no down-sides to students building robots out of parts from a box, and watching as these battery-powered critters scurry around the classroom floor. There is also little or no math involved in these curricula.

Arguably, NASA has the highest per-capita usage of mathematics of all federal agencies. At a time when our students have fallen behind in international mathematics standings, NASA could have led the way to make mathematics sexy. As a STEM agency, had NASA invested 25 percent of its education budget in mathematics education (note: "M" is ¼ of STEM), I am convinced we would be having a different discussion about how the next generations of students regard mathematics. There have been some fledgling math-oriented programs at NASA that were generously supported by education grants from the Science Mission Directorate, but these are scheduled to pass into oblivion. Again, most efforts at NASA seem devoted to insuring that its brand in STEM education remain upbeat and positive. Explicitly supporting standards-based mathematics education that legitimately engages students in grades 7-12 does not align with the desired brand for NASA.

But if you think that NASA is alone in some sinister plot to de-emphasize mathematics you are wrong. Virtually every federal agency that offers STEM resources to teachers does so by minimizing the mathematical content. They do this, for example, by creating middle and high school STEM activities that cover math skills far below what the students see in their corresponding math classes. The rush to make activities "hands-on" has seemingly created legions of resources that have students measure and plot and take a few percentages, but never delve into math concepts above grade eight such as linear equations, statistics and mathematical modeling.

This movement away from mathematics as an explicit thematic focus has now reached another nadir. Although the Omnibus Spending Bill passed in January has temporarily enjoined many federal agencies from implementing the 2013 coSTEM recommendations on consolidating STEM programs across the federal government, some agencies are nevertheless going ahead with their own internal streamlining. Award-winning STEM education programs are also being wound down and eliminated in favor of less demanding and much more fun "public outreach."

No one knows where this new experiment in education will take us, but clearly by providing fewer mathematics resources to teachers and students you are not helping them to see mathematics as a valued STEM subject area.

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