I recently received interview questions by a cub reporter in the heartland. Paradoxically, the nature of the questions made answering a challenge. Here’s my attempt.

How would you define STEM education? 

Quite literally, STEM is an acronym meaning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. To the extent that there is anything new to be found in STEM, it is a recognition that the nature and process of both science and mathematics have changed dramatically outside of school and that educational institutions may wish to reflect such advances. The T in “Technology” is unfortunate since it really should mean computing – programming computers to create models and solve problems otherwise impossible. The “T” certainly doesn’t refer to a Thermos or Pez dispenser, arguably both less protean technologies.

The E for “Engineering” is also a new addition to the curriculum. Young children are natural engineers. They enjoy an intellectual relationship with materials, people, and even ideas. They tinker and explore. They test hypotheses and push limits. Engineering is the concrete manifestation of theoretical principles. You test a hypothesis or try something. If it works, you’re inspired to test a larger theory, ask a deeper question, decorate, refine, or improve upon your innovation. If you are unsuccessful, one must engage in the intellectually powerful process of debugging. Traditionally, the only people permitted to have engineering experiences were the students who compliantly succeeded over twelve or fourteen years of abstraction. Engineering is the dessert you enjoy after your asparagus diet of school math and science.
The addition of intensely personal and playful pursuits like computing and engineering democratized science and mathematics learning while affording children the chance to do real math and science. Students should be scientists and mathematicians, rather than be taught math or science, especially when that curricular content is increasingly irrelevant, inauthentic, and noxious.
Would you say STEM education is important? If so, why? 
If the motivation for STEM is some misplaced fantasy about job preparation or STEM is merely a buzzword designed to offer an illusion of progress, than STEM is not important. If we want scientifically and numerate students, some of whom might fall in love with making sense of the universe, while recognizing the changing nature of knowledge, than STEM has intense value.
If our goals are no more ambitious than raising stupid test scores, then kids should have rich engineering and technology experiences in order to be more active learners.
Dr. Stephen Wolfram, arguably the world’s greatest living mathematical and scientist, says that for any intellectual domain, X, there is now or soon will be a branch of that discipline called, “Computational X.” That new branch of the discipline represents the vanguard of that field, the most interesting ideas, and likely the better paying jobs as well.
Should schools have STEM programs? How are they beneficial to students? 
If schools are going to bother teaching what they call math and science than they should embrace the new ideas, content, and processes of STEM. It is critical to engage students in authentic experiences since Jean Piaget taught us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”
Schools should stop using the term “program.” Program implies a high probability of failure and therefore obscures the urgency to create a new intellectual diet for children. To the extent that one program siphons resources from another, than STEM is far less important than adequate funding for art and music education.
What does the future of STEM education look like to you? 
Schools need to prepare students to solve problems that their teachers never anticipated. In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the world’s least radical organization, stated that 50% of all mathematics has been invented since WW II. Let’s assume that that percentage is even higher thirty years late. None of that new mathematics made possible by computing and the social science’s demand for number can be found anywhere near a K-12 classroom and that is a sin.
New technology and materials afford us with the opportunity to not only teach kids the things we’ve always wanted them to know (regardless of merit), but for children to learn and do in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago.
The better question to ask is, “Who could possibly be against STEM?”

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Just returned from speaking at my 31st ISTE/NECC Conference. I signed the ISTE charter. As the purported premiere educational technology conference, my chosen field, I have fought for two decades to make ISTE more responsive to its members and better serve the children in our care. I must admit that I have mostly failed in these attempts (see list of publications at the bottom of this piece). Despite that, ISTE is a dysfunctional family I cannot seem to quit.

As the cost of conference registration has soared, membership services dwindled, social events eliminated, and workshop revenue sharing disappeared, I have spoken out against the organization having two offices on both coasts and urged them to rein in their profligate spending. This year, the customized furniture and color coordinated walls in the convention center were joined by a ballpit in the presenter’s lounge.

In addition to the waste accompanying the caviar and champagne decor at this year’s boat show, ISTE kicked creepy up a notch by placing surveillance tags on attendees.

Others, notably Doug Levin & Mike Crowley, have done a fine job of detailing technical aspects of the pernicious “Smart Badge” and discussed the privacy implications – for and against.

The privacy risk of the “Smart Badges” is not my major concern, because although I am creeped out by ISTE tracking me, my experience suggests that the organization lacks the competence to actually make use of the data.

From Doug Levin’s blog https://k12cybersecure.com/blog/hacking-the-iste18-smart-badge/

I do however have major concerns regarding deeply flawed views of education and the governance of an organization I am compelled to join if I wish to speak at their annual conference.

Buried amidst the pro-corporate spam being sent by ISTE to its registrants prior to the conference, there was apparently an email announcing the exciting new “Smart Badges” that included opt-out information. I vaguely remember seeing it. When I went to the registration counter to pickup my badge and all-time crummy conference bag, the woman behind the counter began affixing the tracking probe to my badge holder. I asked her not to do so and was told that I could not opt-out. I then said that I would just remove it myself and was told that was prohibited. Somehow, mine broke just minutes later. I have no idea how that could have happened.

My greatest objection to being tagged like livestock was that it would only be a short matter of time before some bonehead referred to the fantabulous “Smart Badges” as educational technology. When I mentioned this to my friend Chris Lehmann, he told me that it already had.

Q: Why is ISTE using smart badges?

A: ISTE recognizes the value of personalized learning and wants to do all we can to create custom and individualized educational experiences for each of our attendees. Smart badges will allow us to provide you with your own “ISTE 2018 Journey” post conference. The journey will detail the sessions you attended and the resources you collected. It’s like taking notes with your feet! Additionally, this data will allow the ISTE team to further personalize the conference experience now and in the future. This aggregate data, combined with registration information, will provide more comprehensive insights into attendee patterns and activities.

Therein lies the problem. Tracking students legs, bums, or corneas is not education. It is not personalization, a fantasy that after decades has produced little more than dispensing a multiple-choice question based on how well you answered another multiple-choice question. Personalized learning is at best machine-based testing. It has little to do with teaching beyond automation and nothing to do with learning. Yet, ISTE’s largest corporate overlords pimps sponsors profit greatly by this hideous handful of magic beans.

The greatest threat of the ISTE “Smart Badges” is the denaturing of educational computing’s powerful potential and the organization’s misanthropic service of corporate sponsors, often in ways detrimental to its members – the ones who justify its tax-exempt status.

Here are the questions I asked ISTE about the “Smart Badges” on Twitter. If history is precedent, I do not anticipate answers. The governance structure of ISTE allows for remarkable plausible deniability. The most frequent answers I receive to my questions are along the lines of, “I don’t have any control of that.” “It’s not within the purview of the Board.” etc…

  1. Why was I explicitly told by the registration booth that I could not have a non-tagged holder and that I was prohibited from removing the surveillance device?
  2. Who paid for the tags and beacons?
  3. How much was paid?
  4. If did not pay, what was the value of the sponsorship?
  5. How does ISTE imagine using the data to “personalize the conference experience now and in the future?”
  6. Who will decide how the data is used?
  7. Will popularity be used to exclude high-quality presentations from future programs?

There are lots of issues people have with the “Smart Badges.” It’s not worth ranking them. I just shared mine. Perhaps others will join me in “following the money” by seeking answers to these questions.

As someone who has been told repeatedly since the formation of ISTE, “I don’t have any power,” I am trying to get to the bottom of their structural deniability on all matters. This is a member organization betraying its membership. I care a lot less about privacy than the fact that a person or group of people at the organization think tracking devices should be considered educational technology. Such nonsense jeopardizes not only kids, but diminishes a field I care about.

Previous publications by Gary Stager about ISTE


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.