I am writing this blog right now from a lounging area at the Ottawa Convention Center, where a group of us (Laura Good, Michelle Mileham, Jen Wyld, Shawn Rowe and myself) are participating at the North American Association for Environmental Education – NAAEE 2014 Conference. This morning, we tag teamed in the presentation of a workshop to help a diverse array of environmental educators to think about EE and STEM integration at their institutions, what STEM means to them and what would be some STEM integration goals in their workplaces. One of our activities included a “thought swap” exercise with prompted questions to draw on people’s perceptions and understanding about STEM.
As an exercise for ourselves as presenters, we decided to also answer the questions so that we knew where everyone of us was coming from as we all represent different backgrounds and perspectives. It was a good reflective exercise that drew me back to my past and really made me think about identity building within STEM fields. So, I thought I should share my thoughts in this blog and invite you to comment and respond as a further reflective exercise. What is a STEM activity to you? If you have the opportunity, how do you engage learners in STEM activities? Where do you want to see STEM in the future?
When I was prompted to think about STEM opportunities during my childhood, the first thing that came to mind were my years growing up with the ocean as my backyard. Not having much money, my playtime and built experiences involved a lot of exploration, observation and use of creative tools for play at a natural environment, the ocean. A lot of inquiry, a lot of repurposing, and engineering went on while me and my brothers tried to build floating devices from found natural objects, or just simply got curious about understanding why and how the sea cucumber squirted when handled by us. Those years were full with STEM opportunities, sometimes taken and sometimes ignored, but they consist of the basis of my critical thinking about the state of our oceans and what its challenges represent to me, as well as my career choices.
Past jobs I had almost always involved some sort of science-based activity involving live animal interactions. The insect zoo programs I did while working at Iowa State University are a great example of it, where there was a lot of science inquiry through hands-on, minds-on activities and tasks that related the science concepts in programing with the audience’s daily lives and activities, addressing misconceptions in practical and fun ways. (i.e. Why are people scared of bugs, why do people think hissing cockroaches are big and nasty? Well …lets look at them closely and think about what we know, discuss with ours peers and figure out why we think that).
Perhaps at that point, I did not have a full understanding of STEM, but that was nevertheless part of my work routine. Today, STEM fields are defined and specialized fields receiving much attention in modern society as an important literacy component, especially when we want to address modern world issues. They become important because, although generally seen as complex fields, they are nevertheless part of daily life and routine activities for people. There are many opportunities for STEM thinking from the time one wakes up to the time ones goes to bed. From thinking to actual activity, STEM occurs when those real world applications are materialized in a STEM goal, which one works toward with real specialized tools to further develop understanding.
With that in mind, an important goal I see for this new and ongoing discussion of what STEM is and how we do and promote STEM, is not only the development of the field in its needed scenarios, but also the recognition of the very social aspect of incorporating this new field of “STEM” as a symbolic and cultural tool that societies appropriate. Engaging in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math should go along with clearly understanding why, how and for whom to engage in a particular STEM practice, as a way to truly assign meaning to the activity beyond doing STEM for the sake of STEM.