Posts Tagged ‘STEM’

Should You Push Math and Science?

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Media pundits and policymakers have been telling us for years that we need to graduate more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students, because our companies just can’t get enough qualified workers. I wrote a little bit about this perceived “Sputnik Moment” last year.

But now there is a new report by the Economic Policy Institute that blasts a hole in that story. After crunching all the numbers, it seems that the U.S. has more than enough STEM graduates. In fact, for every two STEM graduates, only one is able to get a job in his or her field. This seems to match the reports I have been reading over the years in the “American Society of Engineering Educators” newsletters, which suggest that many of our engineering graduates are having trouble finding jobs.

Percent of high school graduates going to college, graduating, and then entering a STEM job.
Source: Economic Policy Institute

This report also challenges the critics who say that U.S. schools are failing because our students don’t score as well as China, Canada, and other rivals on international tests. While it’s true that on average, U.S. students only score in the middle of the pack, some analysts say that this is a very simplistic and misleading summary. It makes a good sound bite, but raging over our seemingly weak performance completely misses other more positive information buried in year-to-year trends, socioeconomic indicators, and test methodology. In fact, the U.S. has a lot of highly qualified students who score in the top tiers of these types of tests.

The emphasis of the report is really on clearing up misconceptions about our STEM labor market as it influences foreign guest-worker and immigration policies, but I’ll let someone else fret over that.

What concerns me is the whole idea of pushing certain career fields on kids, even for reasons that seem noble on the surface. Whose interest does it serve? If kids choose a STEM field because everyone is telling them how desperately our country needs them, which implies job opportunities, and then it turns out not to be true, then those kids just lost out on 4 years of their lives which might have been better spent studying something they really care about.

Policymakers worry  that too many kids drop out of STEM fields while in college, but the EPI report claims that, in reality, more kids transfer in to STEM fields from non-STEM fields while in college, so the net result is usually more STEM majors at the end of 4 years than at the beginning. It seems that we are bemoaning a problem that does not exist.

Why do we give so much attention to engineering a work force that suits the needs of industry? If we only focused on what’s best for each student, I believe there will still be plenty of highly qualified and motivated individuals in every field, because all students quite naturally have different interests. With a student-led curriculum, the only thing we might have a shortage of is mindless submission.

It’s important to expose kids to lots of different things, including math and science, but they need to have the space and freedom to follow their fascinations, even if you can’t imagine how they would ever make a living doing that. If they later decide to pursue a career for monetary or security reasons, that’s up to them. Just make sure their expectations match reality – and not someone else’s agenda.

10 Inspiring Websites for Learning Science

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Science and math don’t just exist in textbooks – in fact, the best part of these fields DON’T exist at all in textbooks. The curiosity, wonder, and magic must come first. Only then are we motivated to find out the details of how it all works. But sometimes it’s hard to show this to kids, especially if we never discovered an interest in these things ourselves.

As I wrote in my last post, it’s great if you can find a passionate, knowledgeable teacher or other mentor to lead a class, workshop, field trip, or other experience for your homeschool group. But if you can’t find teachers like that in your local area, the next best thing is to find the books they have written, or the websites they have put together. When I evaluate websites, I am really interested in the knowledge and interest level of the creator/s, along with the caliber of content provided. Some sites have a lot of commercial backing and glitzy features but they seem too cartoonish or dumbed-down for my taste. I’m also instantly turned off by images of red apples and chalkboards, just so you know. I’m OK with advertising, because I know that it takes effort to put forth great content, as long as the information or activities are provided are truly useful, fun, and/or inspiring.

1. My first pick is the now famous Khan Academy site. The creator of the site, Sal Kahn, is both knowledgeable (with three degrees from MIT and one from Harvard) and passionate about helping people learn. His site is a goldmine of free videos demonstrating every possible math concept you can think of, as well as a generous smattering of economics, science, history and SAT prep.

2. Vi Hart Mathmusian’s Youtube Channel: Fibonacci numbers, spirals, fractals, doodles – all about math combined with art.

3. Vi Hart’s personal web site: Besides her Youtube channel, Vi has another site showcasing her math, art, and music related projects.

Vi Hart

Paper mobius strip music box by Vi Hart

4. National Geographic is always an intriguing resource, but they have a few educational projects that look really promising, such as “Population 7 Billion” which involves mapping, human migration, population density and climate change issues. Learning science starts with a reason to learn. Projects like this help make science relevant.

Image from National Geographic

5. The Jason Project is a collaborative effort with The Sea Research Foundation, National Geographic and other organizations to connect students with real scientists and researchers out in the field. There are free downloadable curriculum units on forces & motion, energy, geology, ecology and weather.  There are also digital labs and games to play. My kids and I did this years ago with our homeschool group when the Jason Project team was headed to Antarctica. We did science experiments and other activities related to ice, the ocean, hypothermia, animals, weather, and other Antarctic related topics. It was cool to watch video updates of the research team’s travels and work. The format seems to have changed since then, but it still seems like fun.

JASON Science

6. The Exploratorium is an amazing science museum in San Francisco. My family has visited science museums across the country, but this is our favorite by far. If you are ever in the Bay Area with your kids, this is well worth a visit, and you will want to stay ALL DAY (trust me). But if you can’t make it in person, their website is fun to explore too. There are all sorts of videos, games and activities related to building, sound, colors, geometry, other planets, Polynesian navigation, the ocean, human body, patterns, and general science. All kinds of stuff!


Image from

7. Want more games? Try this one:  This site compiles engineering games from around the web, including bridge design, building roller coasters, space walks, solar car racing, MRI Design, destroying castle walls, and others.

Try Engineering

Image from

8. Want more sleuthing? Try Science Mysteries. Here you’ll find a variety of free mysteries with science-based clues to download and solve, such as “Arctica,” “Strange Dead Bird,” “Poison Dart Frog,” “The Blackout Syndrome,” and “Angry Red Planet.”

Science Mystery

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9. Wondering about STEM career fields? The Science Buddies site has a VERY comprehensive listing of possible careers – some you may have never thought of, like photonics engineer or sustainability specialist. This site is also a great resource for possible science fair projects and topic ideas.

STEM Careers

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10. For older kids and teenagers, I have to include TED on this list. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, is an ambitious initiative to spread good ideas around the world. Each year the organizers attract scientists, engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and other presenters with great ideas to come speak at two sold-out conferences every year. These short presentations are not designed for children, but that is what’s so great about them. Kids will see that these are real people with real ideas that they are working on right now. It’s not has-been science or lecturing. These little videos on everything from “Animations of Unseeable Biology” to “The Magnificence of Spider Silk” to “Distant Time and the Hint of a Multiverse” are what is happening right now and in the future. They are relevant to any kid (or adult) who wonders about the world.  Check it out!


Bonus: Do you have a child interested in computer programming? Here’s a list of recommended sites by my tech-obsessed son:

Code Year – If you know someone who wants to learn programming, here’s a way to start from ground zero.

Stack Overflow – Already know some programming but need help? This is the place to go.

Tutsplus – Lots of tutorials here for learning web development.

Hacker News – For the seriously addicted, a place to find out about the latest happenings in computer technology, etc.


Also, here’s one last website with a list of good open education resources you may not have heard of. Do you have any other favorite sites to share? Please leave a comment below.


Our New “Sputnik Moment” – More Scientists, Engineers, and Mathematicians

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Maybe it’s just my selective hearing, but it seems like everybody these days is talking about how desperately the United States needs to entice and retain more students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, especially in response to our perceived technological race with China.* On Monday, I heard a very interesting talk by Ann Lee, author of What the U.S. Can Learn From China, in which she mentions China’s ability to churn out highly qualified math and science students. In contrast, statistics of U.S. graduates in 2009 show that we graduated roughly 89,000 visual and performing arts majors, but only 69,000 engineering majors, and 22,000 in the physical sciences or science technologies (see source). President Obama even alluded to this as our new “Sputnik Moment” in his State of the Union Address. Technological innovation and research are being hailed again as the answer to our economic, security, and way-of-life problems.

I’m not going to argue with this (yet*). It would be great if we could invent a long-lasting solar battery, learn to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, desalinate seawater cheaply and easily, find a cure for AIDS, etc. There are lots of ways that technology could really help us right now. The problem seems to be that not enough U.S. students are interested in or capable of rigorous study in these fields. So, naturally, policy-makers are thinking of every way possible to provide incentives for students, training for teachers, and more rigor in our national curriculum. It’s just ironic that we are paying so much attention to China’s school system in hopes of learning how to boost our kids’ STEM literacy while the Chinese are looking closely at our school system for ideas on how to boost creativity in their own students.

Nicholas D. Kristof noticed this in a recent New York Times article: “But this is the paradox: Chinese themselves are far less impressed by their school system. Almost every time I try to interview a Chinese about the system here, I hear grousing rather than praise. Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.”  He wrote: “One friend in Guangdong Province says he will send his children to the United States to study because the local schools are a ‘creativity-killer.’ Another sent his son to an international school to escape what he likens to ‘programs for trained seals.’ Private schools are sprouting everywhere, and many boast of a focus on creativity.”

Isn’t that great? I love that the Chinese want their kids to be more creative, but it’s sad that so many of our kids are not prepared for the academic challenge of STEM fields. Perhaps the best solution is somewhere in the middle. Is it possible to build more rigor into our children’s education without squelching their creative spirit? I think so, and there are two big things that would help: giving kids ownership of their education, and  inspiring them with the best examples we can find.

1. OWNERSHIP – I’ve written before about my thoughts on systematic science vs. haphazard (self-directed) science education. The main point I want to emphasize here is that timing is everything. I disagree strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s opinion that the U.S. should start serious academic training in preschool, as they do in China. It is true that preschoolers are very malleable and easy to teach at this age, but they have far more important things to be doing with this precious time than getting a headstart on high school. Kids are BORN creative. If China (or the U.S.) wants their people to be creative, they don’t have to do anything special, they only have to avoid stopping it. That means letting children play, explore, touch, listen to stories, laugh, help, and be loved. As children mature, they are much better equipped to take on abstract studies of reading, writing, and arithmetic. As teenagers, they are more than able to take on rigorous studies if they are so inclined. The problem with pushing academics too early is that it kills curiosity. Once intrinsic motivation is lost, schools must rely on external motivators (rewards and punishment) to make up the difference. From what I have read about China’s education system, their rewards and punishments are more consequential than ours, and maybe that is why their kids take studying so seriously. But I think the best solution is to let kids direct their own education for their own reasons, because curiosity and ambition are powerful forces all on their own.

2. INSPIRING EXAMPLES – Passionate teachers, mentors, museums, science centers, movies, demonstrations, exhibits, and fairs like the Maker Faire are all wonderful ways to show kids the possibilities of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Reading well-written books by authors who are truly passionate about their subject is another way to spark interest. Textbooks are usually not inspiring because they are written by a committee whose sole purpose is to instruct. Even if you don’t live close to a metro area with museums, science centers, and events to visit, make an effort to find inspiring examples for your kids. Work with your homeschool group to find local mentors or teachers for workshops and field trips. Are there any blacksmiths in your area? Beekeepers? Interesting retirees? We once made friends with an elderly woman who power-walked through our neighborhood every morning. We gave her bags of oranges from our tree and she invited us over for lunch one afternoon so that her retired husband could have someone to talk to. It turns out that her husband was a retired astrophysicist. As we enjoyed the gourmet home-cooked Chinese feast our friend had prepared for us, her husband talked non-stop about his fascinating research on comets. None of us had ever been interested in comets before that day, but his passion was contagious. When we got home, my kids all wanted to look up comets on the Internet so we could see what he had been talking about. If I had tried to introduce comets as part of some science curriculum, there is very little chance it would have made any impression on my kids. But a real person with real enthusiasm is hard to beat.

Fortunately, we also have access to very interesting people via the Internet. In my next post, I’ll talk about STEM- related websites that might inspire your kids.

*I’ve also heard reports that recent college graduates with engineering degrees can’t get jobs, but I’ll save that for another post.