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5 reasons less is more when it comes to STEM

7 min read


Schools are missing the boat when it comes to addressing the problem of preparing students to recapture America’s leadership in producing scientists, inventors, engineers, programmers and more through STEM initiatives. The answer has little to do with more teachers, more common graduation requirements, more tests or more school as our policymakers and corporations who stand to profit off this have suggested.

Instead, if we listen to what the experts in these fields are telling us we discover that when it comes to producing successful STEM graduates, the key lies in the adage “less is more.”

Five lessons from STEM experts

1) Less common requirements/more specialty paths. As the common core standards come to schools there is a danger of requiring students to demonstrate competency in the same bloated, one-size-fits-all curriculum rather than giving students a choice of areas on which to concentrate. Specialty paths should be offered for students who want to focus deeply on that which they are interested. Students should not be penalized for not choosing to study or not thriving in areas that are not in alignment with their pursuits.

Expert advice: From Albert Einstein, we learn that not everyone has to learn about, be interested in, or be good at everything. Einstein failed to reach the required standard in several subjects but obtained exceptional grades in physics and mathematics. Like Einstein, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feyman obtained a perfect score on the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University in mathematics and physics, but he did poorly on the history and English portions.

2) Less school/more real-world opportunities. You rarely hear of scientists lauding brick, mortar and fluorescent lights as optimal environments for discovery, creativity or invention. If we want to foster success in those pursuing STEM careers, we can support students in leaving the day-to-day of school and learning through authentic apprenticeship, lab or work opportunities. Schools like Big Picture allow students two days per week to learn in the world and have tremendous success in producing graduates who move on to the college or career of their choice.

Expert advice: Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old cancer researcher, is a great example of leaving school to pursue scientific pursuits. Andraka created an important test for pancreatic cancer, but it is not teachers or textbooks to which he credits his success. Instead he explains he could not have done this without the use of the Internet, with Google as his starting point for research. He came up with the idea for his research when he was attempting to chill out in biology class and read a scientific journal. Unfortunately, independent study was not allowed in this class, and the teacher confiscated the journal. Keeping his eye on the prize, Andraka left school behind when he wanted to pursue his research. With no help from his school, he wrote to nearly 200 biology labs to find one where he could do the work of a real scientist in a real science lab. The one that accepted him is the place he made the discovery that will forever change cancer screening.

3) Less memorization/more exploration. We often confuse the memorization of facts with learning so it’s no wonder that after years of memorizing facts about science, math and other subjects, high school students often have little knowledge of any of these topics. Memorizing algorithms or the periodic chart does not help most learners acquire the foundation necessary for success in STEM-related fields. Exploration does.

Expert advice: Theoretical physicist Richard Feyman gave a now-famous lecture on education where he discussed this problem. He discovered that students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. They could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, yet they did not know anything at all, except what they had memorized. He explained that he couldn’t see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything. Feyman knew that learning didn’t start with memorizing and passing exams. Instead the answer was with exploration as with his Wobbling Plate where he noticed the medallion went around faster than the wobbling. He went on exploring and discovering what would later become the foundation for his Nobel Prize.

4) Less medicating/more options. It’s not unusual for those passionate about STEM-related pursuits to be considered school misfits. To address this, rather than providing youth with additional options, more and more young people are being medicated. If we want to foster creativity and invention, before turning to medication, we must consider alternate options for children who want, need and demand a non-traditional setting where they can have access to technology (rather than be banned) and pursue extended independent studies rather than those driven by bells and birth dates.

Expert advice: Aaron Iba and Nick Perez are successful software developers today, but when they were in school both were labeled as problem children who should be drugged to address their condition. Iba, who developed a software program that brought him millions from Google, resisted the medication, and struggled throughout most of his days where he felt tortured being forced to try to sit still in a classroom and passively take in information at a slow pace. He explained that “school was a boring prison for me, and I did what I could to bring excitement into my life in an environment that seemed designed to prevent it.” His best year was in fourth grade when his teacher left him alone in the back of his class with a computer. Perez did what he could to fit in, even succumbing to the forced drugging. Eventually, though, to take back his life and his health he dropped out of school where he could pursue his passion as the successful software developer he is today. If we want more graduates pursuing careers in technology, we must provide opportunities that meet the needs of young people like this without medication and with customized learning environments and options.

5) Less testing and textbooks/more making and learning from real experts. Along with common core comes the multibillion-dollar common testing and textbook industry. More tests and textbooks that are more rigorous do not lead to more scientists and engineers who are more prepared. Instead, testing and textbooks suck the fun and passion out of learning. Instead give students more opportunities to do and make with real-world experiences or programs like Maker Faire.

Expert advice: Physicist Michio Kaku explains that exams are crushing curiosity out of the next generation through the memorization of facts. He cautions us that our test obsession is resulting in kids who aren’t interest in science. Feyman explains that textbooks, the testing companion, are equally at fault. Most are not written, edited or evaluated by those who use mathematics scientifically and the result is lousy books that are false and hurried. He explained they would try to be rigorous, but there was always something wrong; they weren’t smart enough to understand what was meant by “rigor.” They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn’t understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.

If our nation is to produce more citizens successful in science, technology, engineering and math, we must stop listening to politicians and corporations and start taking our lessons from the experts in those fields. When we do that, we can see that with less common requirements, less testing, less memorization, less medicating, and less school, we will have more students ready for success in the fields we desire.

Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) has worked as a public-school educator and administrator since 1997 and is the author of “Teaching Generation Text: Using Cell Phones to Enhance Learning” and The Innovative Educator blog.