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Discarding Textbooks: Learning Science by Doing Science

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At this year’s SXSWedu conference in Austin, I met Georgette Yakman, a leader and founding researcher of STEAM, an increasingly popular framework for teaching science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

Interested to learn more, in late March, I spoke with her again about STEAM, what it actually is, and why more schools should show interest. Yakman—whose resume includes advanced degrees, honors, and positions from Virginia Polytechnic Institute—is passionate about creating a common learning language and demolishing the notion that one field of study is superior to another.

“Science teachers are given an amazing amount of clout, and science is seen as so important,” she says. “I certainly don’t deny that in any way, but within the school it creates this hierarchy of, ‘I’m better than you, my subject’s more important than yours is.’ But construction teachers, music teachers, art teachers—they use science all the time. They have to. They can’t get away from it, but they’re not often given respect by the scholastic community.”

Yakman consults with schools around the country and around the globe, helping teachers coordinate their subjects, assistance which in turn helps students discover deeper relevance in their learning. “How can we ask our kids to be future engineers when they’re . . . not studying how they could take something from the past and apply it to the future,” she says. But even within disciplines, she tells me, teachers must rethink how they try to make learning relevant and exciting. I couldn’t agree more. Times are changing, and schools need to change with them.

“We don’t teach kids to be scientists,” Yakman says. “We teach them to be linguistic learners with scientific information. And it turns them off in general from science. Most kids will tell you that a scientist looks like Bill Nye. I love Bill Nye, but he’s a white guy in a white lab coat. I know a lot of scientists and very few of them are white guys in white lab coats. The students in my programs, they do scientific discovery in real life. They investigate things that need to be investigated. They don’t always change the world, but there’s a venue for them to realize that even as young achievers, they have a voice and enough knowledge to do basic studies.”

Yakman’s remarks remind me of Tyler DeWitt, another innovative education who also attended SXSWedu, delivering a 15-minute presentation, “Crowdteaching: A Learning Revolution.” During his standing-room-only session, DeWitt, who holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology from MIT, explained an evolving movement in which thousands upon thousands of educators, from all around the world, are uploading high quality educational content online—free of charge. In 2012, DeWitt also delivered a passionate TED talk, “Hey Science Teachers—Make it Fun,” in which he lambasts science textbooks as boring, confusing, and age-inappropriate.

“A standard high school biology textbook, I don’t know a single 14-year- old who can read that and learn anything from it,” DeWitt told me for a March 24 Spin Education story,Crowdteaching: A Learning Revolution. “But textbooks that completely confuse students still get published every single year. No longer will a student have to suffer through awful textbooks that weren’t written for them. They’ll be able to go to the Internet and choose content that meets their needs.”

Yakman echoes DeWitt’s thinking, and with constantly evolving online learning tools, she sees no reason for teachers to assign textbooks—in any course. “The kids should be accessing online basic information,” she says. “School doesn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a new set of textbooks. They can spend their money on project-based learning and the supplies that kids need, and professional development. That’s where we need to be spending our money in schools, is on our educators and on our students.”

In fact, Yakman says that for schools wishing to successfully implement STEAM, the biggest administrative challenge remains finding time for professional development and planning. More than anything, there has to be sufficient buy-in from everybody involved. This also includes understanding and placing a larger emphasis on the maker-movement.

Too often, Yakman tells me, students don’t see things being made. “If they’re given a choice between a STEAM project and an iPad, they go for the STEAM project every time,” she says. “Because they all have electronics at home, but lots of kids don’t even know that when you bake a chicken, it gets gelatinous.” This sense of discovery fosters inquisitive minds, Yakman says, along with “a passion for learning that traditionally schools [take] out of kids.”

In my recent reporting, no one exemplifies the power of STEAM better than Rich Lehrer, a middle school science teacher at Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts. Lehrer’s son, Max, 3, was born with symbrachydctyly, a congenital abnormality which prevented fingers from developing on his right hand.

Last year, Lehrer learned of how open-source software and consumer-level 3D-printing could help build artificial limbs, and he came up with the idea of sponsoring a school club to help with that endeavor for Max.

“There was always this sense that it wouldn’t work out, or we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Lehrer told me. “When all of a sudden we had all the stuff there, that realization on their part and my part that ‘Oh, my God, we are literally going to be able to build my son this little, prosthetic hand.’ It was this moment in teaching . . . I’ve never had anything like it.”

I also had the chance to speak with Arjun Bhatnager, a senior at another nearby school whom Lehrer and his students worked with on the project. “It feels really good to really help a child with the work I was trying to do,” Bhatnager said. “It was just awesome, the whole idea of something I worked on for hours will now benefit a child who can actually pick up things and do stuff with it.”

Does your school implement STEAM? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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Guest Friday, 09 December 2016