In my previous post about the NJEDge Faculty Showcase, I discussed a Biochemistry course that I had worked on with Kyle Murphy, an instructor at the Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.  In this post, I’ll discuss the keynote presentation from that event, titled “STEAMing Up STEM – Relevance for Higher Education.”

Georgette Yakman, founding researcher and creator of STEAM education, started off describing the STEAM acronym: Science & Technology, interpreted through Engineering & the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements.  From the SteamEDU website, the “A,” a recent addition, stands for “the broad spectrum of the arts going well beyond aesthetics; it includes the liberal arts, formally folding in Language Arts, Social Studies, Physical Arts, Fine Arts & Music that each shape developments in STEM fields.”  The addition of the arts makes sense, given how many figures in history such as Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, and Walt Disney all lived at the intersection of art and science.

Keeping up with the latest research in technical fields is not easy, and traditional textbooks simply cannot keep up.  One way to ensure classroom materials are always up-to-date is using a “living textbook,” as I described in my recent post about textbook alternatives.  To update the materials, Yakman created a network of educators who update materials quickly as things happen (such as when Pluto was stripped of its planetary status).

Yakman also discussed the importance of getting women and minorities into STEM fields.  In order to do so, she said, they need to see the human connection to the material.  How does the material students are learning in the classroom apply to their lives outside the classroom?  She likes to say that students perform “engineering” when getting dressed in the morning, for example, by deciding to put on pants over their underwear, and not the other way around.  Another example is the “Story of Stuff” video, which links society’s local consumption patterns with global social issues — in other words, how our buying and selling patterns affect and are affected by the environment, the government, and corporations.  All of a sudden, subjects like biology, chemistry, and physics seem more relevant, in order to understand how raw goods are created in the first place.  The “human” factor keeps students involved in education.

Yakman also stressed the importance of having students “own” their projects to make positive contributions to society, rather than completing “canned” exercises.  This objective makes sense, given initiatives like the Technovation Challenge, a competition where young women create apps to improve their local community.  They work tirelessly for several months on apps that, for example, find the cleanest local drinking water, or alert local authorities to trash pile-ups.  By taking ownership of their projects and bridging the gap between their education and their community at large, there’s no limit to what students can achieve.

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