STEM Curriculum: Rearranging the Tableware?

The traditional STEM curriculum in American secondary schools was developed in the 1890s, with the apparent success of “scientific” methods in producing the industrialized and electrified “progress” of the times. Other than “modern” additions to account for developments in atomic and particle physics and such, the table of contents of most textbooks was largely unchanged over the last century. Even so, the latest “improvements” to course content generally involved topics that were too complicated for the typical high-schoolers’ mind, and were irrelevant to their daily lives, or for their college and career preparation.

I agree that this reductionist view has long ago run its course, and that the “whole-to-parts” viewpoint is really the new development of the late 20th Century. Since we largely knew how the basic elements of math and the sciences worked, we started looking at ways in which those components could be assembled and organized in different (sometimes impossible) ways.

We began looking at things as “systems”, which had properties that were not evident from the individual elements. We began to look at the products of those systems in terms of their utility and value through the measure of “quality”. We gave data and information meaning through techniques of “informatics”. We also began to look at ways to describe physical processes with “modeling” methods, and then to plan and design for optimization using virtual and simulation technologies. Most recently, we are looking at the impacts of non-linear “complexity” to those systems and processes.

What I suggest that needs to be changed for a “Comprehensive STEM curriculum framework for the 21st Century” is that we add an orthogonal overlay of “unifying perspectives” to the traditional “pipelines” of the STEM courses in math, physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, etc.

To the table of contents of the usual textbooks, each chapter might show why the topics relate to the overall “systems”, “quality”, “informatics”, “modeling”, and “complexity” perspectives. So while the “body” of the text information may not change a lot, specific sidebars and links can make connections to how these facets relate the facts to the students’ lives and to their preparation for life beyond school. It would be the curriculum designers role to make sure that such linkages are made in the overall “Content Information and Knowledge Space” (CIKS).

So the real way to STEM reform is not just to “rearrange the table (of contents)”, but to be sure that each place-setting of 19th Century chinaware includes the 20th Century utensils of the Systems, Quality, Informatics, Modeling, and Complexity (SQIMC) perspectives, so that we may enjoy a feast of knowledge and competency in the 21st Century.

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