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.

My tricky little pal and fellow suffering Jets fan, Will Richardson, recently tweeted asking for TED Talk suggestions to share with his family on “TED Talk” Tuesdays. Will and his wife are embarking on an interesting family event featuring dinner, a TED Talk and conversation with their teenage kids. I know how much my family learns watching Jersey Shore together, so I decided to share my parental expertise with the Richardson family via the following TED Talk recommendations.

You might find my small selection surprising:

#1 Margaret Wertheim on the Beautiful Math of Coral

This talk is all about connections and contrasts – beauty and science, math and art, problem solving and creativity. As a result, this brilliant presentation challenges many of the sterotypes about learning, knowledge and the scientific method perpetuated by school. You will be amazed by how the craft of crocheting led to the visualization and understanding of  centuries old theorems at the frontier of mathematics.

#2 Greening the Ghetto

Majora Carter’s TED Talk explores the connections between economic justice, poverty and environmentalism through community activism. Aside from the importance of this message, I selected this TED Talk because marketing and communications genius Guy Kawasaki does a masterful job of analyzing the talk line-by-line in his book, Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition. Kawasaki demonstrates how Ms. Carter breaks many of the rules of public speaking while persuasively delivering a world-changing presentation. (Kawasaki’s book is a must-read for educators and even high school students.)

This talk is also all about connections.

#3 The Sixth Sense

MIT Media Lab Pattie Maes and her graduate student, Pranav Mistry, demonstrate how $300 worth of consumer electronics may be worn and woven into daily life as we face a new world in which ubiquitous information is available to you as if it were a sixth sense. This video is mind-blowing and should inspire kids to learn to program computers and embrace tinkering.

#4 Tony Robbins Asks Why We Do What We Do

You do not need to buy into any of the new age hokum being peddled by Tony Robbins to recognize that he is one of the greatest communicators alive today. His presentation style is remarkable and the impromptu exchange precipitated by Vice President Gore’s heckling makes this one for the ages. There is much to learn stylistically and affectively from this performance.

#5 Dave Eggers & 826 Valencia

Best-selling author Dave Eggers’ desire to give back to his community is only matched by his passion for whimsy and sharing his love of writing with young people. This TED Talk celebrating Eggers winning the TED Prize explores how pirate supply shops and superhero stores may serve as incredibly rich non-school learning environments where children become writers by writing with expert adult writers. Put aside Eggers’ nod towards school and homework and consider the powerful ideas of apprenticeship, access to expertise, community of practice and how we might all create productive contexts for learning.

If you want to go beyond five recommendations, might I suggest the two TED videos exploring El Sistema, the Venezuelan Youth Orcestra program and remind yourself of what the performing arts mean to a culture.

El Sistema: Music to Change Life

No educator's library is complete without this DVD

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