STEM, Reading, and Rock & Roll

by Jennifer Kobrin on September 15, 2011

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A couple of weeks ago I watched an inspiring primetime television special hosted by Will.i.am, producer and front man for the band, The Black-Eyed Peas (As of January, he is also Intel’s Director of Creative Innovation). The program was called i.am First: Science is Rock & Roll and highlighted the 20th Annual FIRST Robotics Championship. A non-profit organization like Foundations, FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – designs innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills. Inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST in 1989.

Through FIRST, girls and boys ages 8-18 years old, representing a range of ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, work together in teams to create robots, which they then race against others from across the country in a “Superbowl of Science” culminating event. For many students, the experience is life-changing. Young people who participate in FIRST are more likely to go to college and twice as likely to major in science; the girls are four times as likely to study math and science.

In this blog I’ve discussed how the Exploratorium in San Francisco is using an inquiry based approach with English Learners as a tool for language acquisition, and the Department of Education’s increased focus on STEM for ELs. I believe that STEM and reading are intimately connected. Digital learning devices and techniques, when combined with tried-and-true best practices, are essential tools in the literacy toolbox for all students, elementary through high school.

The interactive experiences, hands-on experiments, and project-based nature of STEM promote literacy, because students are excited, motivated, and eager to learn dynamic subjects, relevant to their modern lives. But such students must be able to read – and read well – to decipher math word problems, comprehend textbooks and laboratory manuals, write proofs, understand theorems, and interpret symbols and equations.

Sesame Street, known for promoting literacy, understands the STEM/literacy connection; in the new season starting September 26th, its programming is focusing on STEM. Why? Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, Vice President of Education and Research of Sesame Workshop explains: “By approaching STEM education as an integrated discipline through the process of scientific inquiry, rather than individual domains, the curriculum helps children develop a better understanding of how things work, and builds stronger cognitive reasoning, critical thinking and problem solving skills.”

STEM skills are critical for successful functioning outside of school, too. As Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford pointed out recently in The New York Times, everyday life requires applications of math and science to finance (household budgets, mortgages, car leases), medicine (proper dosages, interpreting test results), even leisure time activities such as Fantasy Football and Baseball (ERAs, batting averages, pass completions).

Today’s entertainment fields have the unique ability to reach, engage, and hold the attention of young audiences, as Will.i.am’s initiative shows. Even educators know that creative industries can be powerful drivers of widespread educational change.

According to a recent US Dept of Commerce report, STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future, regardless of educational attainment, entering a STEM profession is associated with higher earnings and reduced joblessness. STEM workers earn 26% more than their non-STEM counterparts; STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17% from 2008-2018, compared to 9.8% growth in non-STEM occupations; and, STEM degree holders enjoy higher earnings, whether they work in STEM or non-STEM occupations.

The bottom line: youth who love STEM are motivated to read; youth who read have the skills to master STEM; and youth who study STEM have a brighter future ahead of them. STEM, reading, and rock & roll: Let’s just call it the 21st century recipe for success.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Kathleen Miller September 18, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Having a focus on STEM engages all students and levels the playing field as teams work together to create, invent and synergize. Our Robotics classes are extraordinary. There is enough energy in one room to light up the entire town. One additional step I have used at my school is “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” We are all learners and synergy creates a tapestry of ideas making the impossible possible. As children learn about leadership, they learn about themselves. What greater gift can you give children than a belief in their amazing capabilities and an opportunity to create and invent that provides hope for a better tomorrow!

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Jennifer Kobrin September 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Thank you for your comment, Kathleen. It’s wonderful to see what students can accomplish when they are truly motivated. Some research shows that students who are at-risk academically actually benefit more from student-centered, inquiry-based learning environments (as opposed to traditional classrooms), such as those created in a project-based learning context (I’m thinking of your robotics classes). I also think the combination of hands-on STEM projects and leadership skills are instrumental for preparing the next generation of innovators and creative thinkers. Kudos to you!

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