Preaching to the STEM Choir

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

Preaching to the STEM Choir

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This week I received an announcement about yet another “STEM Summit.” My first reaction was - are these STEM Summits just “preaching to the choir?” Now as a preacher’s kid the term “preaching to the choir” has real meaning to me. On one hand it means talking to the already converted – those who already believe what you are talking about. If your job is to convert more people this can feel like a useless exercise. I think for most people that is what the term means – wasting your time trying to convert the already converted. In fact though there is a second piece to preaching to the choir. That piece in two parts is a) training people to go out and convert people and b) motivating them to actually do that work. If you are working on pushing this outreach piece than preaching to the choir is anything but a waste. So how does this relate to STEM Summits?

Most of the summits I have attended (and I’ve attended a lot of them) also have two parts. Part one is a keynote. In these keynotes someone of influence tells the choir the disheartening story of how bad things are. We don’t have enough STEM graduates. The STEM graduates we have are not diverse enough – too few women and minorities. Yada yada yada. I think this keynote is supposed to motivate the choir to go out and do something – to change the world.

The second part of the summit consists of workshops where people talk about programs that work. This is the training part and is intended to give people the tools they need to go out and “fix” the STEM problem. And honestly some of these programs are awesome! If the keynote year after year were not telling the same story but giving us some indication that serious progress was being made I’d feel a whole lot better though. The numbers don’t seem to change a whole lot though.

Now I am not opposed to STEM Summits. I actually do think most of them are good things. The problem I have is that we’re not reaching the right people. But you’re going to say “look at all the students these programs are reaching!” and I will agree with you. But I think Dean Kamen said it well when he said “We don’t have an education problem. We have a culture problem.” These summits are not changing the culture. The people who control our culture still don’t get it. We are still, as a culture, promoting the sports stars and the media stars as heroes to students rather  than the engineers and scientists who really make a difference in the world.

Programs that send the STEM choir to work converting students are great. They are important. They are necessary. What they are not is sufficient!

One of the aspects of the FIRST program founded by Dean Kamen and Woody Flowers is that there is an outreach to change the culture as an important part of the program. Teams are encouraged, even incented, to not only help start new teams but to influence government and industry leaders to join the movement. That may be the missing piece from many STEM Summits – a call to change the adults – the power brokers in government and industry – into STEM advocates. We need a cultural shift and that takes more than just reaching out to students. It requires government officials who promote STEM beyond the halls of the STEM Summit and into action on their own part. It requires industry leaders to do more than complain about a shortage of employees and take action to support teachers, to promote the excitement of their fields and to also speak out beyond the STEM Summit.

We’ve seen some recent movement in Computer Science. Computer Science Education week for example. A good step that many are using to promote CS education more widely in their own schools. The Computer Science Education Act which may or may not pass would be a step in the right direction as well. It will take the STEM choir to work beyond their comfort zones to make those things really work though. It means we have to talk to the unconverted adults in the world. We know the issues. We know the importance of growing the STEM pipeline and we know how cool STEM is. We need to share those messages more broadly.

  • As you know, I'm in the choir.

    I don't have a particular problem with the tradition setup but have seen some things that can make it more powerful.  Recently, I'm seeing events that let teachers bring a principal or superintendent along for free.  That exposes them to the message although at times it sounds like nothing is happening which, as you note, couldn't be further from the truth.  There are great educators doing great things.

    Perhaps the events themselves could change.  What would happen if a STEM event had an Arts strand much like the CSIT Symposium did by opening up an IT strand.  Or, what about an Arts event that has a related STEM strand.  Could the philosophies cross-pollinate?

    Could we get away from teaching subjects and get back to teaching kid?

    Good post, Alfred.

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