It’s no secret that in this time of miniature technological advances and amazing scientific discoveries, Americans have a love/hate relationship with math and science. As in, too many of us love to hate them. Americans score poorly in comparison with other industrial countries on math and science assessments. Math anxiety turns kids away from algebra and physics, and it’s gone on so long that it’s now a generational inheritance (meaning a child may not have math anxiety of their own; they’re simply parroting what they’ve heard parents and favorite teachers say). We’ve become so desperate to turn around scores on standardized tests, that we’ve really forgotten how to teach math and science at all. (Disclaimer: I am a math tutor who hears repeatedly on a daily basis, “My teacher never showed me that,” on the most basic process. That’s actually why the Dead Bunny series exists.)
Even worse, we’re cutting funding for arts programs to add more time to teach kids how to perform well on these standardized tests. We really seem to have missed something here, and we’re doing some pretty significant damage to the current generation in the process. Fortunately, some kids have decided to take matters into their own hands, which is why things like fan-created art (be it writing, art, or multimedia) and makerspaces exist. The math and science aspects become interesting to those participating because it’s suddenly concrete and relevant to what they want to do.
So, why do kids have to wait until the final bell of the day has rung to start taking steps toward subconsciously reducing their math anxiety, toward learning the practical applications and beauty of math and science? What would teaching those skills (currently lumped with technology and engineering into a broad skill set called STEM) better in schools provide these curious, inventive young people? At its core, STEM is about deconstructing things to find out how and why they work. It allows young people to develop a deeper understanding of these concepts. STEM then enables those same young people to take those understandings and extend them, to see patterns, to find new ways to solve problems, to think critically. Broad skills that will serve these young people the rest of their lives.
Do you know what else builds critical thinking and problem solving skills in kids? The arts. Not only do the arts strengthen these analytical skills in young people, they also help them develop the ability to be creative, to communicate, to collaborate. They instill in children the ability to recognize patterns and help them develop self-discipline and the ability to set themselves to the deliberate practice needed to grow skills and talents. Again, a series of broad skills that will carry the child throughout her adult life.
So, why are we giving up one for the other, instead of promoting both equally and aggressively to help better prepare children for an ever-changing future? Instead of promoting STEM, we should promote STEAM and develop well-rounded young people capable of strong thinking and design skills, ready to face the questions and dilemmas of the world around them.