I didn’t quite realize how impactfully David Stitt’s message regarding STEM education would apply to life in 2020. According to Stitt, educator and member of the West Sound STEM Network, certainty is an adversary to good scientific exploration. Rather, it is a willingness to dive in and explore in the face of uncertainty that is invaluable for educators and students alike. The following interview is the second portion of a conversation with Stitt regarding approaching STEM education as a mindset, and in his opinion, the only requirement is a willingness to fail.
TT: The West Sound STEM Network focuses on STEM literacy. What is STEM literacy? Are there key concepts we all should be familiar with?
DS: In Washington State when we talk about STEM literacy, we’re talking about the ability to prove things scientifically, to incorporate technology, and the big click for us is the engineering portion, because we’re hitting the math as a concept. They have math integrated in other classes and a lot of times even if it’s a stand-alone math class--we’re seeing they’re getting skills in math. It’s integrating all of those things together to solve a problem that makes STEM literacy.
And as far as how we look at, is that a necessary skill for today, I mean even when [you apply STEM literacy to] our current situation, the ability to be able to analyze data, to be able to look at evidence on what we should be doing that’s working and what we should be doing that’s not returning the way that we had hoped--that’s an absolutely necessary skill--for scientists and for people who vote.
TT: How have you found ways to make STEM not scary or intimidating?
DS: Well, it’s hard. You don’t want to be prescriptive on how somebody approaches STEM. But there are things that I’ve found that have helped, and one is a great healthy dose of a sense of humor. STEM is a mindset, it’s not necessarily a skill, in my opinion. When you approach a particular problem with a STEM mindset, you’re looking for how you can systematically investigate something. And really STEM is just the most efficient way to go about figuring something out. That’s what science is--we take something, we minimize the variables, we try to figure out what’s causing and what’s making our effect the most. And you can do that in a way that’s very intimidating--or you can do that in a way that’s incredibly fun. I try to make sure that I create situations that have a little bit of intrigue, a lot of room to fail and [an understanding that] that’s what we expect to do! We expect it not to work the very first time. We expect it to be puzzling. We don’t expect to know it like a google answer. Because that’s where the mystery and the intrigue is--and that’s really where the skill of STEM and science comes in. If you could just google the answer, then you’re not really investigating anything, you’re just regurgitating something. For me and my classroom, I do my best to create problems that don’t have an easy answer, but I also do my best to be able to incorporate humor and a sense of adventure, even within failure. I’ve got a couple of quotes up on my board and one of them was from a university Professor that told me that one of the most interesting things that he has ever researched was from a mistake.
TT: What do you notice about students who are willing to try new things in the STEM realm and how do you cultivate that curiosity for STEM learning?
DS: You know the difference between a kid who thinks they’re very good at STEM and a kid who thinks they’re not very good at STEM is really their willingness to fail. I haven’t met a single kid who is like, "I’m bad at science--but I’m really ok with failing." I find kids that are like, "I’m bad at science because I always fail." They’re too afraid to go through and get a wrong answer. They’re too afraid to have something not work. Whereas my adventurous students may not be my top, I wouldn’t say smartest or best, but they wouldn’t necessarily be what you would say are my top A students--but they’re totally willing to put themselves out there. They’re totally willing to see if it didn’t work why didn’t it work. That’s the separator between them.
TT: If you had one piece of advice for educators looking to embark on STEM exploration with their students, what would it be?
DS: For STEM Exploration, I guess I would advise that rather than [focus on] an activity, how can you help students have a mindset? Rather than say, "we’re going to investigate the wind," and then that’s where it ends, we’re going to look at saying, "how can we determine why the wind is doing what it’s doing? How do we know that there is actually wind?" Ways to start incrementally increasing your students’ ability to think about why? And then once they come up with the why, with that question, then to start thinking about, well how are we going to go about figuring out that why? Because that’s really the engineering piece. We make better tools for our good questions that we don’t have good answers for.