Math Education Is STEM Education!

  • Math Education Is STEM Education!

    Math Education Is STEM Education!

    Matt Larson, NCTM President
    May 17, 2017

    What design principles would you include to ensure that an effective STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program builds mathematics understanding? 

    I ask because I was recently asked to be part of a discussion on “Design Principles for Effective STEM Programs that Build Mathematics Understanding.” My argument is that there is only one fundamental and critical design principle necessary to make certain that a STEM program builds mathematics understanding. I wonder if we agree.

    I address the STEM question with reluctance. Our past three NCTM presidents have written messages, published articles, testified on Capitol Hill, or presented on the topic of STEM education. In addition, our NCTM teacher journals have published numerous articles and have produced focus issues related to STEM education. STEM is frequently a program strand at the NCTM Annual Meeting or Regional Conferences. The “STEM ground” would seem to have been well covered by NCTM. 

    Despite all these efforts, the questions concerning STEM and the requests to speak and address STEM education just keep coming. It is clear that resolution on how STEM education fits with our goals for mathematics education still lacks clarity in the minds of many.

    STEM education is a focus of many policy makers, business and industry leaders, philanthropic foundations, and education leaders because the data indicate there will be accelerated growth in the number of STEM jobs the economy will generate over the next decade, particularly compared to other professions (see, for example, STEM 101: Intro to tomorrow’s jobs). Additional data indicate beginning salaries and salary growth for STEM majors will outpace those for other majors and careers. 

    Let me make one thing abundantly clear: I support STEM education—including science, technology, and engineering. But I support STEM education, as Michael Shaughnessy wrote, from the perspective of “political advocacy.” As mathematics educators, it is incumbent on us to be advocates for STEM education because advocacy for STEM education is advocacy for mathematics education. 

    Among other STEM related recommendations, NCTM’s 2017 Legislative Platform, specifically advocates for “adequate investments in the programs authorized by ESSA that serve as the basis of federal support for local education, including specific programs for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and STEM subjects.”

    However, as we look beyond advocacy, one significant challenge associated with STEM education is how it is defined and implemented in districts, schools, and classrooms. There is no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes STEM education. This complicates matters and allows each entity to define STEM education in its own way to fit its experiences, biases, and agendas—NCTM included. In some cases this leads to math or science classrooms where students build bridges or program robots, but fail to acquire a deep understanding of grade level (or beyond) math or science learning standards. 

    Could K–12 math classrooms fail to have students engaged and learning the mathematics content and practices necessary to advance in the curriculum, but have integrated some technology, engineering, coding activities, or connections to science and be called a “STEM Program”? If students are not equipped to pursue a post-secondary STEM major and career, is it really an effective K–12 STEM program? My answer is no. No number of fun activities or shiny technology will overcome this fatal shortcoming.

    Levi Patrick, chair of NCTM’s Professional Development Services Committee, pointed me in the direction of Rodger Bybee’s recent book, The Case for STEM Education: Challenges and Opportunities (NSTA 2013). Bybee is a respected science and STEM educator, and in this book he argues that the “purpose of STEM education is to develop the content and practices that characterize the respective STEM disciplines” (p. 4). Under this definition a highly effective K–12 mathematics program, built upon what we know constitutes the elements of effective mathematics programs, is an effective STEM program. 

    Of course, the problem with Bybee’s purpose of STEM education is that it isn’t consistent with the definition and vision many others have of STEM programs. Many individuals, particularly those outside of mathematics education, when they think of STEM education, focus specifically on curriculum integration, technology integration, and critical-thinking skills. 

    NCTM certainly supports curricular connections, appropriate technology integration, and critical thinking, but not at the exclusion of mathematics learning. Appropriate integration of technology in support of mathematics learning goals as well as the need to make curricular connections, both within mathematics and to contexts outside of mathematics, have been guiding principles since Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM 2000) and were reinforced in Principles to Actions (NCTM 2014). 

    The mathematical practices outlined in the standards of many states and Common Core State Standards for Mathematics have much in common with the scientific and engineering practices of Next Generation Science Standards. Both sets of practices emphasize the importance of understanding problems, developing and using models to solve problems, constructing viable arguments based on evidence, and critiquing the reasoning of others. When we engage students in the standards for mathematical practice, we are making connections to and supporting science education. Implementation of the recommendations in Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Mathematical Modeling Education ( GAIMME; [SIAM 2016]) provide yet another opportunity for mathematics teachers to make meaningful connections to science (and other disciplines) in support of STEM educational goals while maintaining the integrity of mathematics learning standards.

    Maintaining the integrity of the mathematics learning standards is our responsibility as mathematics educators. For example, I frequently hear someone state, “I need a STEM program that teaches algebra.” I would argue a high quality algebra course already is a STEM program. The request for a “STEM program that teaches algebra” is driven by the belief that integration is the defining characteristic of a STEM program. Instead, I believe the more appropriate request would be to seek a high quality algebra program that supports STEM through its connections to appropriate applications and integration of technology. 

    If in the “STEM program” the mathematics isn’t on grade level, or if the mathematics isn’t addressed conceptually but rather as a procedural tool to solve various disjointed applications, or if the mathematics is not developed within a coherent mathematical learning progression, then the “STEM program” fails the fundamental design principle.

    The attention mathematics education gets from STEM is primarily positive. But we need to keep in mind that there are also downsides. The possibility that we might neglect the full development of students’ mathematical understanding in order to integrate STEM “activities” into an already overpacked curriculum is real. In addition, STEM education narrowly emphasizes learning mathematics for the workplace and for the scientific and technical communities. 

    We must always keep in mind that we also teach mathematics for social justice.  We teach to empower students in their personal lives.  Mathematics is an important part of cultural heritage, including an understanding of the multiple contributions various cultures have made to mathematics. These purposes for teaching and learning mathematics must remain part of our curriculum during an era that emphasizes STEM preparation.

    The mathematics design principle of an effective STEM program that builds mathematics understanding is just that: it is a program designed to develop the content and practices that characterize effective mathematics programs while maintaining the integrity of the mathematics. Other design principles, for example, curricular connections and the appropriate integration of technology, are merely vehicles to ensure students learn important mathematics at a deep level and are confident in their ability to use mathematics to be empowered in their own lives. 

    If we fail to support each and every student in developing a positive mathematics identity, a high sense of agency, and a deep understanding of mathematics, then we will have failed our students, denied them future opportunities, and ultimately failed to build the mathematical foundation necessary for the STEM outcomes that policy makers envision.

    While it is true that advocacy for STEM education is advocacy for mathematics education, it is equally true that advocacy for mathematics education is advocacy for STEM education. As you receive pressure to “STEM-up” your classroom, I urge you to keep this fundamental and critical design principle in mind. 

    I encourage you to post a response to this message and share your challenges and successes related to STEM initiatives in your district with the mathematics education community. 

    Dive deeper into this topic by joining our next webinar:

    Math Education Is STEM Education 
    July 19, 2017  |   7:00 p.m. ET 


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    Frank Peterson - 10/28/2020 3:44:56 PM

    According to my experience, math isn't an easy subject to learn. I've always spent a lot of time trying to understand it using a lot of writing services and additional educational resources. To be honest, I like as it provides professional help at any time.  I think that teachers should try to find an individual approach to their pupils, as math is an interesting science. 

    Karen Fuson - 5/20/2017 8:55:09 PM

    First, I totally agree with Matt, and I appreciate his saying things so clearly.  Second, as a researcher about student thinking about mathematics from prekindergarten through grade 6, I suggest that it might be useful in this STEM discussion to separate PK to grade 5 or 6 and grades above that.  There is a LOT of math to learn at those grades and doing it with understanding and fluency takes a LOT of time.  Of course real-world uses need to be integrated throughout, and these can come from science. I appreciated very much the comment that short activities can be very useful. Not everything has to involve a long project. This is key at the lower grades.  It is possible to bring students from all backgrounds to understanding of the mathematical ideas in the CCSS and other high-quality state standards up through grade 6.  If we concentrate on doing that, then students would be positioned to do deeper work in STEM at higher grades.  

    Tracey Knerr - 5/18/2017 7:45:32 AM

    Thank you for writing this.  In our district, the science supervisor and I have been trying to leverage the Standards for Mathematical Practice with the NGSS and ELA practices.  We use the NGSS Venn diagram visual to help inform the work everyone is doing.  Unfortunately, as a district, we are not all on the same page and rather than thinking of STEM or STEAM as a way of thinking and doing business most of our colleagues still see STEM as a separate class.  It would be fabulous if all interested parties could come together and discuss a common vision.

    Ihor Charischak - 5/19/2017 3:48:35 PM

    Tracey: It will be very challenging to have a common vision. What STEM is really about is the integration of these 4 areas and the APPLICATION of math to the other 3 subjects; for example, building bridges and programming robots. Doing the traditional common core math program does not lend itself well to projects which is the heart and soul of STEM education. I'm disappointed that Mr. Larson does not see it that way.

    Matthew Larson - 5/19/2017 4:14:18 PM

    Ihor: As I indicated in the message I support curricular connections and the application of mathematics to science and other subjects. My point is that in doing so we must be careful to maintain the integrity of the mathematics learning objectives. In too many cases this is not being done. Matt.

    Frederick Thomas - 5/20/2017 10:37:41 AM

    Two points that may be neglected in this important discusion are:
    (1) brief STEM tasks can provide authentic assessments for deep understanding of mathematics. If students cannot transfer their understanding of math into new contexts, they don't really understand the math vey well, and
    (2) STEM tasks can be brief--say 30 minutes of group effort to compare alternative expressions of a function with the goal of getting a computer to complete the calculation as rapidly as possible. STEM does not always need to rely on long-term, equipment-dependent projects like building bridges.

    Ihor Charischak - 5/20/2017 10:14:04 AM

    Maintaining the integrity is a given for NCTMs view of an ideal math curriculum. Good STEM projects would not do any harm to your vision. But it does make teachers concerned about doing STEM projects "right" so they probably won't even try unless they have to and that's not a good way to do it. Sharon's comment below indicates some of the concerns teachers have. You're going to run into this problem again when your high school reform committee plans alternative paths for students. STEM projects would be a great alternative to Calculus for those students who are planning STEM careers. Colleges need to rethink whether Calculus should be taught in high school instead of a solid STEM course.

    Matthew Larson - 5/20/2017 10:19:53 AM

    Ihor - Good points that I will pass along to the High School Task Force. Thanks. Matt.

    Sharon Stearns - 5/17/2017 9:54:32 PM

    Until recently, I struggled to see how to implement a STEM or STEAM program into our math curriculum with fluidity.  After attending a workshop on the next generation science frameworks it became clear to me that as a sixth grade teacher of math and science, our teachers can naturally intergrate the curriculum of the two subjects and cover the frameworks of both. We will however need to change the focus of our curriculum units. Those middle school teachers who teach just math or science seem to be struggling with an interdisciplinary approach and implementation will be much more difficult. STEAM or STEM curriculums should intergrate math, science, technology, and arts curriculums and not stand alone. Inplemenation will take lots of PD for teachers and management support by administrators.

    Frederick Thomas - 5/17/2017 1:41:26 PM

    Thank you for continuing to address this very important topic. I have been engaged with STEM education since the term emerged in the 1990s within NSF's Advanced Technological Education program as NSF struggled to add "T" to their existing responsibilities for science, engineering and math. The struggle continues and it is clear from a curriculum perspective that math is the least integrated of the 4 areas--although my own field of physics is a close second.

    I agree passionately with your point that high-quality math education (whether within STEM programs or not) must respect the disciplinary integrity of mathematics and must achieve deep understanding of mathematics. Many educators outside math (including myself) feel frustrated about math instruction precisely because so many classes fail to achieve a deep enough understanding to allow ready transfer to contexts outside the math classroom. In physics, for example, we regularly encounter students who are quite skilled in manipulating functions such as y = ax^2 + bx +c, but who have great difficulty transferring that understanding to a function written as x = x0 + v0*t + .5at^2.

    During 20+ years of close collaboration with math, engineering and technical faculty in a community college setting, one important lesson I have learned is that students need to be pushed AND pulled in order to transfer their math learning to other contexts. STEM, in my opinion, should be different from purely discipline-based instruction in the way math teachers deal with applications AND in the way that science, engineering and technology teachers make explicit links to mathematics at an appropriate level.

    Sorry if this comes across as a pitch for our Math Machines non-profit, but you asked about successes and I think we have demonstrated that STEM activities can be used as a tool for lifting students’ conceptual and procedural understanding to higher levels. We focus on function thinking—asking students, for example, to design an equation, x = f(t), which will make a small cart or a laser dot on the white board move from one point to another in a specified way. The cart or the laser dot provide an extra motivation for many students, but the more crucial point is that they provide immediate, dynamic feedback. Wrong answers are not punished with red marks, but instead become opportunities for a teacher to guide students to deeper understanding.

    Jason Gauthier - 5/17/2017 12:18:58 PM

    Thank you for addressing this, Matt. I couldn't agree more with your thoughts here. STEM is a widely-used but under-defined term in education today. Oftentimes, programs include what my colleagues and I call "random acts of STEM" in an effort to promote the values assoicated with the idea of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. But that's it right there. "Mathematics education" is part of STEM education and I don't believe that high quality mathematics programs (as defined by NCTM) deviate from the goals of STEM education. My worry with the current state of affiars around STEM is that it is mostly "E" or perhaps "SE" in many places. I always find myself asking "But where is the math?" when I hear about STEM programming and content. I think we, as mathematics educators, need to advocate in that way regarding STEM education. In my state it feels as though mathematics educators are not at the table when it comes to driving disucssions and implementation of STEM initiatives. Those conversations are driven by science and technology educators and I believe we need to become more active players in these conversations, to advocate for mathematics as a discipline strongly connected to other STEM disciplines, but, as you said, with its own internal integrity of content and practices.