Many middle-school students fear science and math as much as cooties and wedgies. Neither subject is ranked on their cool-things-at-school list. And later, in high school, those preconceived notions improperly guide their course selections and career choices.However, those stereotypes are fading, thanks in part to Washington STEM, a nonprofit that is celebrating its first anniversary this week. For the purpose of this editorial, the key letters in the STEM acronym are the first and the last. “Science” and “math” form the foundation — especially in middle school — for meaningful high-school diplomas, attractive résumés for college applicants and, ultimately, lucrative careers. First, though, we have to convince kids to stop hating on science and math.
Washington STEM deserves praise for changing the conventional wisdom among many adolescents, and instilling in them the belief that science and math are not to be feared. In its first year Washington STEM has awarded $3 million in statewide grants that have reached about 16,000 students. It’s difficult to quantify the success of this first year, because there’s such a great variety in programs and they’re mostly locally designed, with outside-the-box creativity. Think of it this way: Changing attitudes is crucial, but it’s hard to measure with any kind of box score.
Here in Southwest Washington, a $10,000 Washington STEM grant was directed to several uses, including seed money for new training for math teachers. In the Evergreen school district, some math classes were recorded on video to see which teaching strategies are most engaging to students. That experiment was noticed by instructors at Clark College, and the video approach was started there.
Stereotype-busting programs are under way in districts large and small. In Cape Flattery School District on the end of the Olympic Peninsula, the STEM approach has high-school students serving as mentors to middle-schoolers, motivating them to embrace science and math. The middle-school students also studied marine biology on a science research vessel. At Clover Park High School in Pierce County, an innovative hands-on algebra class is empowering students to learn beyond traditional classes. In Pasco, middle-school girls are trying out high-tech careers in after-school and summer programs.
Of course, the STEM acronym also includes the middle two letters, which stand for “technology” and “engineering.” Once the foundation is established through the pursuit of science and math, the longer-term, high-paying rewards start to kick in. Slowly, but inexorably, teachers and parents see children advance beyond preconceived, inaccurate boilerplate fears of science and math. A recent Associated Press story quoted Andrew Shouse of the University of Washington Institute for Science + Math Education: “We’re missing so much potential in society by the way we limit access to opportunities to learn. It’s dramatic in schools that are disproportionately serving minority and low-income students.”
So spread the word: Science and math are cool. Even journalists think so.