Why are connections to the world of work important and relevant in STEM education?
An opinion piece by Dr. Katja Maaß
STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education can include connections to the world of work, by discussing fascinating questions like the following in class: How can we make the transshipment of containers from ships as efficient as possible? How can we design a pipe clamp? How can we determine the water quality so that swimming without risk is possible? Critics might rightfully ask however, why these topics should be discussed in classes, when the time table for STEM-education is overcrowded anyway and students need to be prepared for final exams. Should not simply specific vocational trainings be left to deal with these topics? Why should we bother with connections to the world of work? How are they supposedly relevant for STEM education?
There are several reasons why I think STEM education needs to include connections to the world.
First of all, there is a dramatic shortage of skilled employees in the STEM sector, which we are regularly reminded of by the media. There are few young people who aspire to STEM careers. Even if there is an existing interest in STEM subjects, many students and their families are simply unaware of professions connected to science. Some are convinced that the only possibility of working in science is to become a scientist, a science teacher or a doctor. Therefore, most consider science irrelevant to their own professional future (Archer et al., 2013).
Second, in relation to mathematics in particular but not exclusively, we are faced with the so-called relevance paradox (Niss, 1992). The role of mathematics merges with the role of technology, as mathematics is at the core of computers’ modus operandi. Simultaneously, mathematics remain hidden in all sorts of tools that function as black boxes for users. Thus, despite the central role of mathematics in our society, most people never witness its working and consequentially think that only a few people are doing mathematics.
Third, in Europe 17% of 15-year-olds underachieve in science and 22% in maths – and alarmingly, students of low socio-economic status (SES) and migrant backgrounds are particularly at risk (ET 2020).
Consequently, action is required to overcome these challenges. We need to make STEM subjects more interesting to students, support them in becoming more proficient in STEM, give them insight into the vital role of STEM in our modern societies and into STEM related careers. There are of course several possibilities to reach these different aims: Including inquiry-based learning, starting from interesting problems and including connections to real life and the world of work into STEM education. The latter demand can give rise to discussions regarding the aims of STEM education: Is the objective really to only provide a background for students entering the place of work? Or should STEM be taught for its general educational value? From my point of view this perspective falls short. The requirement of showing students the relevance of STEM subjects for our society and careers should not be misunderstood as to only focusing on preparing students for the place of work. It means balancing subject matter learning with learning about its relevance. Even the educational reformer, John Dewey (1916) already argued for a study of subject matter through an intertwining of academic and vocational education. It is amazing to see how 100 years ago Dewey pointed in a direction, which seems so contemporary nowadays.
So, for example, why not have students learn about geometry, let them inquire and get insight into the use of mathematics while designing a parking garage? In fact, the design of a building is a complex task involving many variables. Architects have to think about the structure, installations (electricity, water, heating…), the distribution of the space (staircase, corridors, rooms, entrance hall…), orientation of the building, etc. Often, decisions taken in prior steps affect what is possible to be done in the next ones. The structure of the building and the distribution of the pillars have already been decided and cannot be changed. When students design the lay-out of the car park, the parking spaces and the entrance ramp, they learn about perimeters, areas, rectangles, lengths and so forth and understand how they interact and how they are used in reality. There are many opportunities of including such examples in STEM education. You will find more tasks in relation to the world of work and materials for a professional development course intended to prepare teachers for including connections to the world of work on www.mascil-project.eu.
Archer, L., Osborne, J., DeWitt, J., Dillon. J. Wong, B. & Willis, B. (2013). Aspires – Young people’s science and career aspirations, age 10 –14. King’s college, Department of education and professional studies.
Nicol, C. (2002). Where’s the Math? Prospective teachers visit the workplace. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 50(3), 289-309.
Niss, Mogens (1992): Applications and modelling in school mathematics – Directions for future developement. – Roskilde: IMFUFA Roskilde Universitetscenter.
ET 2020 (2015). 2015 Joint Report of the Council and the Commission on the implementation of the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (ET 2020) New priorities for European cooperation in education and training.
Prof. Dr. Katja Maaß is the ICSE Director and Professor at the University of Education in Freiburg, Germany. She has published various works on IBL (inquiry based learning) and other topics related to innovative STEM education.
This article was first published in the ICSE Newsletter by Katja Maas.