Every Student is a STEM Student

By Elaine Menardi
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Ken Olson, President, Chairman, Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), 1977
The DEC-10 mainframe filled a room.
It was massive and monstrous and entirely magical. I literally shivered the first time I saw it. Total shock and awe–but also because it was housed in a chilly 62 degree room to keep the circuit boards from frying. At the time, there was not even a hint of thought about one day holding a marvelous machine like this in the palm of your hand.
That was my first day of college. I was hooked.
Computers have so profoundly infused modern life that we cannot even envision a world without them anymore. What comes next? What can we invent now? Tech-geeks the world over slave through marathon design sessions in search of the next great idea that will ramp everything up a level. The next iteration of innovation will perhaps feel subtle to the average user, but the impact will be huge like computers have been.

Profile: STEM Student

This is the kind of thinking that most educators relegate to the dreamers, those STEM students who have a gift for all things science, technology, engineering and math. These are the kids who usually stand off to the side in a large group, eat lunch at their own corner table, vibrate on a plane that is just enough out of sync with classmates to draw all kinds of unwanted attention or not any attention at all.
Educators are stuck in this traditional stereotype of a STEM student. There is just something very linear-looking and -feeling about these kinds of kids, hard to put into words, but teachers know it when they see it, and then educate accordingly under the assumption that the labels are true: there are STEM kids and then there are Arts kids.
They are always trying to get STEM kids more interested in creative writing or fine arts or drama or music under the good-hearted notion that this will help them become more balanced and out-going. In this modern age of instant gratification where we have access to everything with a few swipes on a smartphone, we live with the internal construct that we can be–that we should be–all things. So we add the A for arts to STEM to get STEAM and label yet another category of students because we want to be all-inclusive as educators. This is a good and equitable attitude but let us look deeper.
Consider for a moment this idea: Every student is a STEM student.
That is not to say that every student should choose a science career or that the arts have no place in schools. No.
Every Student STEM means that every young person in our school system today is a digital native–they have never known a world without internet. Everything about their lives has involved some form of technology and many educators believe this has profoundly changed the way children think, learn and process information. All their lives, these children have been developing a scientific, engineering mindset of logical reasoning and sequential thought processes to navigate even the simplest applications.
Witness a 2-year-old on a smartphone or iPad and you will see a young brain growing neural pathways through a trial-and-error process playing a game. This is a STEM student. This child will grow up in a world surrounded by rapidly-evolving technology and digital devices that will require a working knowledge base of STEM skills. Educators tend to hold fast to a stereotype of a traditional STEM student, but any young person who wants to keep up with his or her peers will continually develop STEM skills to learn a new smartphone app or video game. This is the inherent nature of a tech-based world.
Every Student STEM is the reality and life of the modern digital native student.
If educators would change this primal mis-mindset alone, how could that impact the what and how we do education? Would it reshape the skillsets of the not-quite-ready-for-the-real-world students who graduate our schools every year? Would we/could we produce future-ready, job-ready students who will be successful? Everything about our world will continue to involve technology in some form from credit cards with microchips to self-driving cars.

So much of the change ahead rests on the leadership of educators.

~ John King @JohnKingatED, quoted by U.S. Dept. of Education @usedgov

Contrast STEM digital natives to the analog adults who form the backbone of the entire educational system top-down, side-to-side. Most of today’s educators are digital immigrants, meaning they were not exposed to technology at an early age and are typically less intuitive when it comes to learning new technologies. This would be the equivalent of speaking a different dialect in terms of learning and adopting technology.
For example, a digital immigrant may prefer to print out a document and edit with pen in hand rather than editing onscreen. A digital immigrant will hand out paper copies of a meeting agenda rather than asking attendees to pull it up on a device from an email meeting invite. Digital immigrants tend to be more comfortable with CD’s rather than Pandora, network television rather than Netflix.
There is no inherently right or wrong with either approach but it is clear to see the striking differences between digital natives and digital immigrants–their thought processes and how each works in collaboration as well as in opposition to the other.
The division between digital natives and digital immigrants is not hard and fast–there is much crossover in both directions–but the classification is palpable and distinct in education. Educators face a daunting learning curve in the digital age and need to run fast just to stay one step ahead of their digital native students. Because technology evolves so quickly, educators are in a constant state of professional development to keep pace. All of this paves the way for our education system to focus more directly on creating idea-economy students.
Information economy means: “You hire me for what I know.”
Idea economy means: “You hire me for what I can do.”

We Learn and Then We Do

EdWorld likes defined, compartmentalized descriptions of everything, but we must shift our collective thinking and mindset. The world has changed. “Our kids learn within a system of education devised for a world that increasingly does not exist.”
Harvard Professor David Edwards writes in Wired Magazine:

“In today’s system, “we ‘learn’, and after this we ‘do’. We go to school and then we go to work. This approach does not map very well to personal and professional success in business today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.”

We live in an age of discovery.
Against the arresting background of major dramatic questions, creative discovery becomes even more paramount to our future. The human race needs people with the kind of passionate curiosity that will drive deep innovation.
The thrill of discovering the undiscovered brings a satisfaction that ignites curiosity. Discovery, as intriguing process, is crucial to engage young minds. That is the lure of all things digital for young people. Technology makes infinite scenarios possible. What will happen around the next corner in my video game? What new picture will my friend send me on Snapchat? What will I find on Pinterest or Instagram today?
Digital natives are STEM students. They are incurably curious if only we would ask the right questions. The next great thinker is sitting in your classroom right now.
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

~ Albert Einstein

For more, see:

Elaine Menardi is Co-Brain at Never Summer. Follow Elaine on Twitter, @ELMenardi.

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1 Comment

Jenny Shipley

STEM isn't about what is learnt insomuch as how learning occurs. In the past, if we were covering Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in schools, it was considered that it was a STEM school. Learning was still done in traditional ways. STEM is really about how learning occurs and I agree with Elaine, that STEM is for all children.

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