Friday, December 16, 2011

Challenges to STEM Education: Is it About Sex?

I am disturbed by what I read today in the book "Nerds - How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies and Trekkies Can Save America* and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope". If you have a background in education, or simply opinions about the current state of STEM education (who doesn't?) the author's beliefs about where "reform" is needed are eye opening. (Hint: we need to pay attention to kids thinking about sex)

Anderegg (the author) builds a convincing argument that kids start learning at a very young age that "nerds" are social misfits, unattractive and bound to be sexual failures. Agreeing with this thesis leads to the conclusion that all the emphasis in the world on testing and assessment, all the attempts to show the economic benefits (good job, high pay) of a career in STEM will fall on mostly deaf ears, because: kids aren't making their decisions based on our adult logic. Kids make their decisions about what to study and feel proud of based upon social cues and a driving desire to fit in. By the time they are old enough to realize the innacurracies of the nerd stereotype it is too late.

Unless we are heaping criticism on a public figure, we don't like talking publicly about things like sex. (Does the idea of discussing sex and computing education bother you at all?) 

American cultural anti-intellectualism  is looking very guilty right now with regard to our problem attracting students into, and into doing well in, STEM classes. 

If you buy this argument, it is no wonder we have such difficulty making computing careers attractive. Worse, because computing is everywhere we have a looming national crisis when large numbers of students turn away from computing education.

Although Anderegg does not (so far; I am still reading) separate computing out from science and math, I think we should do so for purposes of problem solving. For example,  he writes that biology is as shunned as other sciences. He bases his arguments in great part on his clinicial practice as a developmental psychologist. 

Computing educators and researchers see another set of data. Computing educators have amassed significant evidence that certain populations of students (e.g. women) are frequently drawn to biology. Showcasing the role of computer science in biological  careers can put CS in a better light (from a student's perspective).  I have written in the past about educators who are making connections between computing and the arts, music, social sciences (and other sciences) too. Students like these connections and revise their perceptions of computing because of them.

So on the one hand I am incredibly disturbed to see the evidence pile-up in "Nerds" telling us that we are approaching STEM education with blinders on.

On the other hand, and you really should read the book "Nerds" yourself to decide, I am incredibly relieved to read something that not only sheds new light on how serious the computing education challenge is, but provides a way forward.

No comments:

Post a Comment