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Will STEM Education Actually Prepare Our Kids for the Future?

By Eliot Kersgaard

Student disengagement in the United States has been worsening for decades, with only half of US students reporting engagement at school (Brenneman, 2016). We’re warned that our students are falling far behind other nations in science, math, and literacy. The response from education policymakers? A heat, beat and treat approach of more tests, longer days, and slashing the arts and humanities. Our school systems have devalued different ways of thinking and being, forcing students to conform or fail. Students are caught in a vicious cycle whereby low engagement inhibits performance, causing us to more rigorously enforce practices which further exacerbate disengagement.

All the while, the need for youth who are equipped and excited to tackle global challenges has never been greater. Is STEM education the answer to the urgent need for a new generation of engaged innovators?


At Myra Makes, our answer to this question is “not quite.” When we first set out to empower elementary schoolers as tomorrow’s innovators, we believed that inspiring kids with a love of STEM would help them become the problem solvers of tomorrow. In our first class we led elementary kids through a variety of activities meant to build interest and ability in spatial visualization and other STEM skills through story-based worksheets. Myra, our main character, was the key to unlocking kids’ interest in these subjects.

We failed. We failed because children did not want to be boxed into learning the skills we offered them. They went through the motions, but their eyes glazed over with disinterest. They found solutions, but they weren’t their solutions. Serving kids education organized as isolated disciplines or pre-defined questions simply wasn’t engaging. Further, it doesn’t prepare students for an increasingly interdisciplinary and changing economy, “[where] in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago” (World Economic Forum, 2016).

In our failure, we noticed the kernel of something that would guide our journey from that moment forward. Kids rejoiced in participating in an adventure, applying their knowledge toward helping others, and creatively collaborating with one another. We quickly discovered that we weren’t the first ones to hit upon the magic of participatory experience. In our exploration of how this has been done in Colorado, we’ve found the Maker movement to be one of the most vital in a growing ecosystem that places self-actualization and creative empowerment at the center. Effective Maker development is inclusive, requiring us “to work effectively with people who define problems differently” (Downey et al, 2006), and “understand the social and emotional needs of kids where they’re at” (Michael Alcazar, Systems Designer, UpDig.is, 2017). Further, in order to meet the social and emotional needs of all youth, “Making must now be about healing. It’s each of our tasks as makers, engineers and designers to figure out what that means and how to do it for ourselves” (Kendra Krueger, Community Science Consultant, 4Love+Science, 2017).

The mindset and skills involved in Making are more fundamental and more practical than the competencies of STEM. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) surveyed 260 corporations for the most sought after skills in new hires. Not until #6 did a technical skill enter the list (“Ability to obtain and process information”), while “Technical knowledge related to the job” came in at #8. The top choice was “Ability to work in a team structure,” with “Ability to make decisions” and “Ability to solve problems” tied for second (Adams, 2014). These top three skills are all core elements of Making and support STEM in the real world. Sadly, they are rarely explicit in curricula, and only “Ability to solve problems” appears in the Next Generation Science and Engineering Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013), and even then, only for engineering, not science.

So how do we teach teamwork, decision-making, and problem-solving? We don’t– we participate in it. We can’t “teach” teamwork to kids, but we can be their teammates.  Placing students’ unique interests, abilities and cultures at the center of education is the starting point to “[realize] the promise of a fair and just society, [which] hinges on a psychological transformation” (Gilligan, 2013, p. 122).

Over the last two years putting this belief into practice, we’ve learned one simple lesson: minimizing structure is key. Minimizing structure maximizes possibility, resulting in more creative solutions and more empowered living. Too often, adults limit themselves with assumed models of what’s possible, leading to efforts that fall short of their potential. Looking past the boundaries of our models opens space for rethinking problems, a gateway to vastly greater returns. It also gives us the flexibility to transfer our skills to new domains. Especially in today’s shifting and interdisciplinary world, society needs innovators who can look at problems differently and adaptively respond to changing conditions. The STEM movement attempts to address these needs, but needs to include more creative, open-ended, and democratic practices to truly fill the role.

Last Spring, we had the privilege of sharing a 60-minute period with a 5th grade math class at Prospect Valley Elementary School in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. We asked them three simple questions: What are your favorite things to do? What are your favorite things to learn? And how do you like to learn best? The students self-organized into groups and worked together to combine the results from these three questions into a new way to organize their education. The results were profound, not due to their complexity or detail, but due to their simplicity. For instance, one kid really wanted to learn about coding through non-technological means and games, and was empowered when other students helped them brainstorm different, fun ways to bring those three things together. Another student wanted to learn about history with board games and virtual reality, allowing people to immerse themselves in the past. Results such as these demonstrate how participatory, student-directed projects can bridge different disciplines together and advance learning beyond what more structured environments allow. We believe that democratizing education through Making is essential to answer the need for a new generation of innovators. It will be a generation in which people uplift one another in mutual support as they walk toward their unique visions for a better world.

Children naturally learn in unstructured environments through play. Play is built into our DNA– all young mammals engage in unstructured play (Whitebread, 2012). Play helps us learn (and create!) the rules of engagement, explore the world, and invent new possibilities. Play is an activity in storytelling and make-believe, crafts everyone should practice to push society forward. Sadly, somewhere along the way, we become conditioned to strictly differentiate between the make-believe and the “real,” never realizing the real is constantly being redefined and recreated.  But what would happen if the line between the possible and the impossible stayed blurred throughout life?

We would create a generation of Makers, engaged with a continual process of transformation and pushing the boundaries of how we interact with spaces and objects. The essence of the Maker is the internal drive to actualize that which has never even been imagined before. This grants the Maker the fantastical power of seeing the future. Makers become involved (sometimes obsessed!) with an ongoing, cyclical process of creativity in which failures become opportunities and problems become solutions. Effective Making is messy, unpredictable, and unteachable. Working with those qualities on our side, educators, entrepreneurs, and parents can support budding Makers with accessible spaces, flexible leaders, and helpful resources. In Colorado, these three support systems are flourishing. With Makerspaces in libraries and schools, pioneering companies such Colorado’s Brackitz building system, and family-friendly, Maker-focused events, there are few other places where kids have a better environment to bring their dreams to life. We have seen the humbling results of prioritizing self-actualization and play right in front of us, from a girl telling the whole crowd at a fundraiser that they “loved problem solving adventures,” to stories of siblings who “play Myra Makes” at home, creating their own characters, challenges and solutions. We look forward to hearing about how you will join this adventure!

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References

Adams, Susan. “The 10 Skills Employers Most Want In 2015 Graduates.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 18 Feb. 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/11/12/the-10-skills-employers-most-want-in-2015-graduates/.

Brenneman, Ross. “Gallup Student Poll Finds Engagement in School Dropping by Grade Level.” Education Week, Education Week, 7 Sept. 2017, www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/03/23/gallup-student-poll-finds-engagement-in-school.html.

“Chapter 1: The Future of Jobs and Skills.” The Future of Jobs, World Economic Forum, 2016, reports.weforum.org/future-of-jobs-2016/chapter-1-the-future-of-jobs-and-skills/.

Downey, Gary Lee, et al. “The Globally Competent Engineer: Working Effectively with People Who Define Problems Differently.” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 95, no. 2, Apr. 2006, pp. 107–122., doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2006.tb00883.x.

Kersgaard, Eliot, and Michael Alcazar. “Michael Alcazar.” 29 Sept. 2017.

Krueger, Kendra. 28 Sept. 2017.

Gilligan, Carol. Joining the Resistance. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Whitebread, David. “The Importance of Play.” Importance of Play, Apr. 2012, www.importanceofplay.eu/IMG/pdf/dr_david_whitebread_-_the_importance_of_play.pdf.

2018-11-19T07:33:28+00:00

About the Author:

Eliot Kersgaard is an artist, educator and entrepreneur working to facilitate a cultural shift emphasizing justice and play. He is the founder and director of Myra Makes.

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