A Think-In on STEM

The first time I came across this acronym, STEM, it was in the form of a sales pitch for a big corporate tutoring firm. Since the kids on the poster were holding little robots and models and had thought-bubbles of atomic models and amoebas, I guessed the acronym and the trigger it represented and promptly dismissed it. I’m a parent, I know the fervour and insecurity we can have, especially around the ‘key’ (‘potentially lucrative’) fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

I guess it’s partly because of this fervour and insecurity that the acronym has such power. Even though seeing it as a sales pitch sold it out for me, the lovely group of mathematicians and math educators I met with at last Thursday’s Think-In at UBC are still having to deal with the fallout of its existence — especially the narrowing of the field of view it’s cultivated.  Susan Gerofsky kindly explained to me that STEM was an acronym coined during the Obama administration as a handle for a campaign to improve US students’ test scores in science, technology, engineering, and math, since US lags so far behind other countries in terms of return on per capita spending. Jo Boaler and her colleague Carol Dweck have covered this in What’s Math Got to Do With It so I won’t delve into it here.

So my new friends are grappling with the meaning of STEM, and all the various permutations and alternative words the acronym can describe, as a pressing question affecting their field and work. It reminds me of the “Art vs Craft” debate, lobbying to get status and moral license from gatekeepers. Maybe it is a good idea to try to build a bigger, better acronym to topple the old one, an acronym that is more inclusive and just and holistic…. but I suspect that the power of the first one was that it was simple and fed on righteousness and fear, so if we make something bigger and more complex and inclusive, it’s probably just going to salve our own bruises. Maybe a different path altogether is what’s needed.

In my work we favour stories, because context is everything, and we’re walking raw into decolonization. I know a fair bit about plants that grow here — especially ones that I can eat, or weave with, and when to harvest and how to prepare them. I try to talk about where my knowledge comes from, how it exists or came to be, whether I learned through the author of a book, or the name of the person who taught me and the story they told me with it, or the story of my own conversation with the plant or the place. And though I teach a lot of one-off gigs, I ask the programmer or classroom teacher what’s important to their people, so I can cast my light and tell my stories accordingly. I don’t think it’s really possible for me to understand my own knowledge nor share it or pass it on effectively unless I can call up that lineage, and honour it.

This way of thinking is different from the way that I was taught STEM in school — generally stripped of lineage and context, a monolithic accounting of fact and truth. It always pissed me off, actually; perhaps because I had travelled a bit even at that young age, I found it really arrogant — later, I might use the work ‘Eurocentric’, or perhaps ‘white-anglo-normative’ that the text book was considered a record of self-evident truth that unfolded perfectly and logically from the winnowed brilliance of (white, European) ages. What about what my dad had told me, that ‘0’ was a concept invented in India? Base 10 and double-entry accounting didn’t grow on trees; even the most abstract or basic of concepts — the numbers themselves — have stories and lineage. When I struggled with something, I discovered that I could go to the library and read the history of it; then I could begin to understand it. And the only time that I ever got any answers to to my questions about where the knowledge came from was when I went and dug them up myself. I still love libraries like they’re heavens.

As a couple of the other participants pointed out, “we teach the way that we were taught” and “we have to go outside and intentionally look for other models of teaching.”  I was lucky to have those models in other areas of my education (my dad, Marilyn Dyer-Seidel, Dr. Lee Gass and the other professors and staff of Science One, my professors at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Sharon Kallis, and recently, Tracy Williams and Haruko Okano). And yes, ‘other areas’ — our conversation also touched on the tragedy of the silos of knowledge, which my table mates were surprisingly vocal about being kin to the Industrial Revolution and colonialism.

So if we can make our teaching practices more inclusive (less exclusive?) by including the story of the knowledge we share, how it came to be, and how it’s powerful, that seems good. Framing systemic knowledge in a way that is relevant and respectful puts power in the hands of excluded people; they can get the tools and agency to assimilate into, disrupt, or refashion the systems that exclude them.

But I would like to hear more from the people who are living on this educational edge, because it is still an edge of change that involves or hints at vanishing languages, loss of traditional ways, degradation of land, and more. Florence shared the story of one of her students in Tanzania who was the first of his tribe to earn a PhD, and how his family was struggling to fashion a place for his/their new identity in the cultural narrative; Gale talked about Inuit math, complicated mental calculations in two different bases that is basically dying of institutional neglect; Kofi and Kwesi spoke about the ‘informal math’ going on at homes in Ghana, sophisticated profit and loss calculations; and a person from Chicago echoed them, marvelling at students’ powers of analysis even while they failed out of math classes for not being able to translate their thinking into conventional formulae. These students are the ones whom we would ask and encourage to adapt and excel in the system that rules the planet — to assimilate — to improve our metrics and, we hope, their own lives. What put them in this position in the first place? What losses of their ancestors? At what cost to them? I think we need to honour those stories, too, and not assume they’re all happy endings; otherwise, I fear we’re just pushing a softer form of colonialism.