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‘We’re drumming the curiosity out of them:’ What needs to change about the way we teach science

What needs to change about STEM education in the United States?
Dominick | Flickr
What needs to change about STEM education in the United States?

Does this sound familiar?

“Most students will tell you that the main job scientists have is to make things as complex and difficult as possible,” Norman Lederman told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.

Lederman, a distinguished professor of mathematics and science education at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, will speak in Fulton at Westminster College on Sept. 14 for the 2016 Hancock Symposium titled “Audacious Ingenuity: Pushing the Boundaries of Science.”

He believes there is much left to be done in the way of attracting children to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields as well as teaching them so those studies are useful later in life, even if they don’t pursue STEM careers.

Lederman thinks that STEM education needs to start in kindergarten, when students come to school with natural scientific curiosity.

“We need to exploit that and build on that in a hands-on and minds-on way,” Lederman said, noting that positive attitudes about science start to nosedive after elementary school. “It’s like we’re drumming the curiosity out of them because of the way we teach it.”

He hopes teachers will begin to use experiences from the everyday lives of children to engage them. He also wants teachers to make the vast amount of STEM careers out there more obvious to children.

“If you ask people what an engineer does, they’re at a loss for words,” Lederman said. “They’re surprised at things engineers do.”

Lederman is currently supervising a project at IIT that interviews people in non-STEM careers who use science and math on a day-to-day basis. This includes people like tattoo artists, pastry chefs and hairstylists. He hopes to present the findings of these interviews to teachers, so they can share real-world science examples to their students.

This all requires teachers to be at the top of their game.

“From my point of view, our biggest problem is the support we provide to teachers,” Lederman said. “We give them a lot of responsibilities and requirements, give them new standards every 10 years and give them a host of things that their students should know and be able to do. But there isn’t a lot of money coming for professional development from the school districts or federal government for that.”

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Teaching in the STEM fields is experiencing a brain drain, which leaves less highly qualified teachers in schools to inspire kids.

“If you’re good in science, if you’re good in math, you can make a lot more money in business, you have a lot more autonomy, you’re respected more,” Lederman said. “In Chicago, for example, the teachers that remain in schools tend to be the ones who are not the best teachers because the real good ones go into the suburbs or head into industry. We have a terrible shortage of math and physics teachers because they are not respected. Chicago, in a particular instance, the district is so large and financially strapped that they have fewer resources here than in the suburbs.”

Listen as Lederman discusses the challenges the U.S. education system faces in properly educating students in STEM fields here:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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