Focusing early education efforts solely on STEM integration does students a disservice
By: Gina Picha
In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report calling for a national effort to produce 1 million more STEM graduates. Science, technology, engineering, and math educators have responded with a sense of urgency, and STEM programs and schools have been developed throughout the United States to better prepare our youths for careers in those fields. STEM curricula experts have begun to integrate student-driven inquiry and a real-world context that add authenticity to class projects and prepare students for future STEM careers. They also encourage educators to connect learning across disciplines.
So how is STEM education still missing the mark, especially at the elementary level? Project-based learning and other practices that support educators in integrating across content areas have benefits, but those benefits will mean nothing if our young people do not enter in STEM fields or majors. These skills and experiences are rich and useful when done well, but secondary to the real roadblock that many American students face. We must look deeper than any new program or initiative aimed at simply increasing interest in STEM careers. We must look at a known problem that we often avoid talking about: the math problem.
Our students cannot enter into STEM majors if they have a fear of mathematics. Even students with an interest in a STEM major often drop out because of a lack of ability or confidence with mathematics, according to University of Chicago researchers Sian L. Beilock and Erin A. Maloney.
Elementary schools cannot integrate unproductive math practices and hope to turn out STEM graduates. In fact, we don’t need to start with integration at all. The problem lies in an avoidance and anxiety toward mathematics that begins as early as 5 years old.