Comments on the STEM report

As far as I can make out, the STEM report arose out of a belief that

  • Students entering college lack basic STEM skills, especially in mathematics. (True)
  • Even college students lack ‘higher order’ skills like problem solving, analytical thinking etc. (Only partly true)
  • As an economy we need more school-leavers to pursue STEM careers especially at the ‘hard’ science and technology end of the spectrum. (I’m not altogether convinced)

Given these assumptions, the report makes lots of sensible suggestions as to how we might ensure that our STEM teachers are as competent and inspiring as possible.

But when the report gets into teaching modalities, that’s where I get confused. To address both (i) and (ii), the suggestion is that teaching should shift in the direction of inquiry and problem-based methods. The idea is that by building the curriculum around students solving real world problems, picking up knowledge and skill as they go along (I think!), they will ultimately be better prepared for the rigours of third level  STEM education. I simply don’t buy that, as my last post suggested, and I don’t think there is any other area of life, whether it’s sport, the arts, or many forms of music, where an inquiry approach would be recommended. Excellence in all of these disciplines nearly always requires instruction combined with lots of practice and a gradual loosening of the reins as the student/performer acquires the skills, the knowledge and the self-awareness to forge their own path. Sure, we encounter self-taught prodigies every now and then but they are the exceptions. I honestly don’t follow the reasoning of those who advocate for IBL and PBL. How can devoting lots of time (and IBL and PBL are very time consuming) to real world problem-solving increase a student’s proficiency in algebra, for example? I just don’t get it.

As for (iii), I’m genuinely confused here. As I stated in a recent post, 42% of science/maths graduates go on to further education, 25% of engineering grads do so and 15% of ICT grads do. Those numbers are not consistent with an economy that is clamouring for more ‘STEM’ graduates. Or maybe it’s that our STEM graduates are not as good as we think and employers don’t fancy hiring them. That would seem to suggest that as a nation we need to conduct some sort of social engineering in which all of the many excellent students who are currently drawn to health-related (and female dominated) careers should be nudged towards STEM disciplines, especially ICT and engineering. As I’ve said before: good luck with that.

One final thing that bothers me about the whole maths education thing and it is this: do the educationalists ever stop to actually talk to practitioners? I’m talking about mathematicians, engineers, physicists, chemists, actuaries and anyone working in quantitative finance. Every time I talk to people like this, people who ‘engage with real world problem-solving’ every day,  they stress the importance of knowing the basic rules of mathematics off by heart. But nobody seems to be listening.



About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to Comments on the STEM report

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Comments on the STEM report

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