STEM as a Sandwich? Might be good!

Technology, as a whole, is an important part of the STEM curriculum in that it shares some “habits of mind”, as compared to the language, arts, and social science subject areas. While science utilizes the scientific method to understand principles of matter and energy in our world, we find that mathematics allows us to quantify those principles and make predictions by utilizing rigorous proofs, and engineering gives us a “built world” that gives us utility, survivability, and (hopefully) sustainability as a global society. Technology’s role is for the use, operation, and maintenance of that built world. Principles, proofs, and designs have no value to us unless they are put into action in our lives and communities. And we need technical people to keep that clockwork machinery running.


So what Technology brings to the STEM curriculum, I think, is that every high school graduate needs: to know how to put those “Owner’s Manuals” to use for all those gadgets they have; an awareness of the ‘”theory of operation” of how those devices work; recognition of dangerous situations and safety precautions; and some sense of a troubleshooting process when things aren’t working right. These skills and practices are exactly those critical-thinking and problem-solving techniques that are supposed to be part of an overall high school curriculum.


Yet these “modes of thought” should not get too tangled up in specific products or occupational fields. In my suggestions for a “Comprehensive STEM Curriculum Framework for the 21st Century”, those options would be provided in the third dimension of “Applied Career Preparation Pathways”, such as: Agriculture, Business, Communications, Construction, Health, Information Technology, Marketing, Manufacturing, and Transportation, among others.


So once learners develop “Core Content Competencies” of the STEM topics, to the step of a “Basic Workplace Skill Set” needed for entry into a desired occupational level, they can explore the career pathways of their choice as applications of where their “S, E, and M” knowledge is put to use. This would also be most appropriate for longer term projects, small-group interactions, and so forth. The technology aspects of the STEM curriculum, then, would be “capstones” to the essentials of the traditional courses, and infused throughout the programs, rather than distinct courses in themselves.


Likewise, the techniques of “information” would be tapped into where appropriate, including those involving Systems, Quality, Modeling, Informatics, and Complexity (SQMIC). We can integrate the traditional STEM subjects by building on a substrate of these “Big I = Information” tools, while overlaying them with options leading to applications in various career pathways. High school graduates would be much better prepared for life and work, I believe, with such an integrated “sandwich” curriculum, than the “silo” or “stovepipe” traditional structure in common use.

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.

Transforming the STEM Curriculum with an Integrated 3-D Framework

In my suggestions on various discussion groups for a “Comprehensive STEM Curriculum Framework for the 21st Century”, I describe the need for a multi-dimensional view using a transformational “systems approach” to these subject areas, particularly at the high school and college levels.

The first dimension is to provide greater integration among the four STEM disciplines to an integrated “Content Information and Knowledge Space” (CIKS), in which the relationships and links between topics are made, using Horn’s Information Mapping techniques. With interactive tablet technology and “Cloud” storage resources, navigation paths through this content should become easier in this coming decade.

The “complexity” of the content information should be clearly described with a ladder of progressive “Basic Workplace Skill Sets” (BWSS) that establish the expectations of what learners should know when they graduate at any educational level. These skill sets would also include the creative and relationship abilities that would be integrated from the “Communication, Creative, Cultural, and Social Arts” (CCCSA or 3CSA) part of the overall curriculum. These might be considered to be the “action verbs” that make the “nouns of content” relevant and useful. This dimension could be measured through a [Bloom, Webb] Cognitive Rigor Matrix (CRM), to ensure that these teaching and learning activities are actually provided in the courses.

The third dimension would be to deliver those activities through various “Applied Career Preparation Pathways” (ACPP), in which students could select typical “real world” problems from a number of career paths, such as: Business, Construction, Health, Information Technology, Manufacturing, Transportation, etc. If prepared questions, projects, and resources could be made available to STEM instructors and classes, the higher CRM activities could be performed by individuals and small groups to explore areas of their own interests. These could also be activities that look at the broader social and global impacts of the STEM subjects, which was (is?) an effort of the Science-Technology-Society (STS) initiative that was a precursor to STEM.

So within this three-dimensional framework for STEM, the area of responsibility of the first direction would primarily be with the STEM faculties to integrate the content information itself. The “Arts” folks would need to provide direction and materials for the implementation of effective practices that engage the students with problem-solving and creative activities, using the content as the “objects of manipulation”. Finally, the Career & Technical Education” (CTE) instructors and the larger business and workplace communities need to provide the direction and materials for the career preparation activities and standards for the skill sets. It looks like this is everybody’s job.

Using “Information Mapping” Techniques to Generate “Reusable Learning Objects”

The “instructional design” that I am working with is a modification of the “information mapping” (IM) work of Robert E. Horn. It is based on the idea that various “blocks” of information can be set within generic templates, so that documents, web pages, presentations do not have to be regenerated from scratch every time. So the templates and sample documents generally save time and effort by requiring only the details and specifics to a situation. It is mostly used for formal, standardized types of communications in the business world, to my understanding.

For instruction, the IM techniques and templates I use are based on a “package” that includes a “wrapper” of auxiliary information around the instructional content itself. Since the delivery, information, and support components of the wrapper are stored in a database, they are accessible as “reusable objects” in a variety of different applications through links to the database. The information itself does not have to be re-created and regenerated for every specific use, thus reducing the 40% of time you describe to 10%, for “the goals, the learning outcomes, activities in itself, the planning of it, the fitting, the adjustment, the linkage between learning activities, the assessments points, the anchor moments…”. With wireless access to this information, students could locate this auxiliary information at their convenience, reducing instructor effort.

For the content information itself, Horn organizes topics into several types and provides model templates for each, insuring that all the necessary components are provided for the best learning efficiency. I use the topic types of: fact, concept, structure, procedure, principle, process, and system. Again, the preparation effort becomes a matter of fitting the content into the proper “containers”. So this addresses your second point, that “here is the first strong moment: you can focus on that activity alone knowing that it will fit the overall puzzle you already have.” I suggest that this interaction time with the students could become 80% of the time, up from the 40% you suggest.

Since quiz, test, assessment, direct observation, and other evaluation techniques are built into the “wrapper” as a follow-up component, the feedback is continual and ongoing, in both part-task and full-task completion points. So the time for this part of the learning cycle should be 10%, I feel, rather than the 20% you mention.

The big advantage to beginning with a “package” template that prepares the content in modular form, and puts a “wrapper” of auxiliary data around it, is that it is reusable and scalable throughout the curriculum. It can be used at the course, unit, module, lesson, and topic levels. This addresses your concerns that ” after students pass all the activities you feel that you create something strong: with coherence and focus on the learning target”, and “if want to change anything you have a road map that helps you detect and change what you want without collapsing the structure.”

My current efforts involve converting a large amount of paper information to electronic form. The next step will be to put it all into a database as “elements”, which can then be packaged using the IM templates described above. I would later on like to put it into an open-source CMS, such as Moodle, so that my work is not involved with proprietary issues.

For over three decades of teaching at the high school and technical college levels, I was continually frustrated with have to redo instructional materials to revise, update, and improve them every time the “newest and greatest” instructional technique came around. By integrating and modifying ideas from Merrill, Clark, Horn, and others, I feel I now have an approach to structuring curriculum for physics, math, and electronics technology that doesn’t require wholesale disposal of previous work done.

STEM in a Sentence

When talking about Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) in education, we need more precise descriptions of WHAT the topic content of science is, what we DO with science, and how we APPLY it to the world around us. When I refer to “STEM” as a “table of contents”, I also recognize that the artistic methods of visualizing, writing, and finding context in culture and history are important to the process and procedures of “doing science”. So, put into the standard sentence structure, the “STEM content” is the subject, the “artistic method” is the verb, and the “real-world application” is the object.

What we need, I believe, is a comprehensive, modularized curriculum framework, beginning with the STEM content delivered in high schools and colleges. The content of each module and lesson would be provided by “experts”, and then packaged by instructional technologists using “best practices” for learning with interactive multimedia, and finally made available using open-source, online delivery channels.

The content modules within this framework would have the STEM topics arranged in a sequence as one dimension. A second dimension would then be a tag or label that clearly identifies the “Basic Workplace Skill Set” needed for successful entry into several occupational levels, starting with “Home & Consumer” to “User/Operator”  and so on to “Engineer”, and “Scientist”.

Connections with the Communication, Social, and Cultural Arts (CSCA) would be specified with the appropriate techniques, methods, and practices used in these  occupational skill levels. These processes and activities would be developed in collaboration with specialists from non-STEM areas.

The grid would then be expanded and cross-connected with Career & Technical Education (CTE) pathways, so students could select applications and projects relevant to their career interests and preferences.

Such a framework, then, would allow students to pursue their own pathways through the multi-dimensional learning space of possibilities along the three content, skill level, and career directions. They would also meet required standards by touching certain “milestones” along the way,. There would be flexibility to participate in collaborative classroom projects, while stepping up the proficiency ladder to advanced and related topics at their own pace, using online resources.

STEM in 3-D

Many comments about STEM seem to reflect the ongoing traditions of “silo-thinking”, promoting favored “channels” of instruction, while knocking down other viable approaches for STEM. As a retired instructor of physics, math, and electronics technology at a regional technical college, I continue to be involved in ways that include ALL students in the STEM curriculum as preparation for their lives and careers after high school.


These STEM goals need change in three directions, I believe, which extend across the grades and the disciplines. First, a systems approach should build the science content topics in the order of increasing complexity. This means that the high school courses need to be flipped to the natural evolutionary sequence of physics, chemistry, and then biology. Second, a clear definition is needed for each step of the “basic skills set” required for entry into the workplace at several occupational levels, beginning with a “Home and Consumer” baseline that matches the state science content standards for all high school graduates. And, finally, students need opportunities to explore various career and technical education (CTE) pathways throughout their high school years, so they can get a taste of where they might apply their abilities, interests, and learning in their productive years.


In comparison to the many “magic pill” proposals, such a multi-dimensional framework of core content realignment, basic workplace skill steps, and application in career pathways could give us the comprehensive STEM curriculum reform we need for the 21st Century workplace.