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STEM Mentoring, Pt. I: Apprentice Without a Master

July 8, 2011

As someone who researches STEM education policy, I’ve found that STEM education has increasingly crept outside the barriers of my 9-5 work day. This weekend proved to be no exception – and I have to say, it’s something that I almost always enjoy. Matted down in the policy realm, it’s refreshing to hear perspectives of people who actually do science and teach science.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t mildly insulted when I asked this science researcher whether he blogged about STEM education and was countered by a jarring “I don’t blog, I work.” Point taken, but as Claire Willet pointed out, we need to look at the bigger picture addressing STEM education. What does “interdisciplinary science education” mean outside of the classroom, when subject areas can no longer be siphoned off into syllabi and rubrics?

STEM education has developed into a seemingly noncontroversial political and social movement and is constantly recognized for its importance within the future of our nation. However, we must also work to ensure that the  most significant issues at hand are not left behind amidst educational jargon and policy. Democrats and Republicans alike rally around this campaign, yet our progress remains stagnant. Wendell Berry’s attitude towards issue-based movements provides a glimpse into the lack of progress Americans have made in STEM over the past 50 years:

And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behaviour.

So often, issue-movements such as STEM education aim to remedy the effects of our educational system rather than spark systemic change. The root of systemic change lies within a change of behavior and understanding. And, in order to catalyze this type of change, we must stop blaming other people and start cultivating an environment where mentorship and individual relationships facilitate growth and a renewed, nuanced interest in science education.

It is widely accepted that great teachers are one of the best indicators of student progress. Mentorship, whether through affinity groups for young professionals who have already entered a STEM career or programs catered to high school and/or college students, is critical for the future of the STEM education and widespread scientific literacy. STEM education has undoubtedly become a movement, but one of the greatest questions has yet to be resolved:  how do we institutionalize mentorship and incentivize mentorship models to change student and professional behavior?

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